Being Really Free: God’s Sovereignty and Human Freedom in Resolution

Something that continues to shape theological constructs in Christian theology is the nexus that is present between God’s Sovereignty and Human autonomy/responsibility/freedom. Depending on which side the theological system leans toward will help to determine where that system will find its moorings within the history of ideas and interpretation. Obviously this nexus, as I just cryptically described it finds its most blatant expressions in either Calvinism sov1or Arminianism (and/or nowadays Open Theism). In general (and in oversimplification), the classical Calvinists are afraid if God’s sovereignty is not absolutely emphasized that our theology will end up in heresy, in Pelagianism; and God will become held captive by His own creation. On the other hand (and in oversimplification), the classical Arminian or Open Theist fears that if human freedom (sometimes=’free-will’) or responsibility is over-determined and objectified by God’s sovereignty that it no longer truly can remain HUMAN freedom, and now God has become the author of everything that happens (meticulously so), even sin.

Thankfully the quagmire noted above, while dealing with real and material concerns, is not where we have to preside; in fact we ought not to dwell there too long. The above (as I oversimply described it), is a result of engaging in negative theology; it is thinking philosophically about God and humanity, and it is not (by way of method) thinking from the center of God’s life, Jesus Christ. If we think from God’s Self-revelation, and allow that to interpret how we think about the ‘union’ between God’s sovereignty and Human Freedom, we will think directly and methodologically from the Hypostatic Union of God and man in the person of Jesus Christ. This is exactly how, of course, Karl Barth maneuvers through this. He gives objective primacy to Jesus Christ, and allows Him to determine the categories through which we should think about God’s sovereignty and Human freedom. Of course, then, as a consequent, what it means to be truly human will be given its understanding from what it means to be human for Christ. Christ’s humanity, by nature, is given shape and reality by its determinate reality as the second person of the Trinity, as the Son. We, by participation in His humanity by the Holy Spirit, and not by nature but grace and adoption, have a Divinely shaped humanity that like Christ’s can only truly be for God (which is the terminus or end/purpose of what it means to be human and free). Prior to hearing from R. Michael Allen’s commentary on Barth in this regard, and prior to hearing from Karl Barth himself; let’s first hear from the Apostle Paul:

15 What then? Shall we sin because we are not under the law but under grace? By no means! 16 Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one you obey—whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness? 17 But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you have come to obey from your heart the pattern of teaching that has now claimed your allegiance. 18 You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness. ~Romans 6:15-18

If Jesus’ humanity for us (in his active obedience—the Reformed concept) is what it means to be objectively human, if he obeyed for us; then we have been set free and opened up for what it means to be truly human. In other words, there is no other way to be truly human except for the way that that is given ultimate shape in and through Christ’s vicarious humanity for all.

Michael Allen will open Barth up further for us, and then I will close with a couple of Karl Barth quotes. Interestingly, Allen places his discussion on this in his category of Providence, in his Karl Barth Reader that I take his thinking from. Allen writes of Barth:

[B]arth’s attention to providence is attuned to ethical concerns, namely, to sketching out the shape of human agency. While he is criticized by many as christomonist – as giving insufficient space to creaturely agency – his dogmatic approach is not meant to supplant, but to situate human agency. In his ethical reflections, he will address the crucial concept of freedom, following the early Reformed tradition in affirming real human freedom while defining it as freedom ‘within the limits which correspond to its creaturely existence (III/3.61). Barth affirms what seems contradictory to those who believe human and divine agency exist in a competitive fashion: ‘That the creature may continue to be by virtue of the divine preserving means that it may itself be actual within its limits: actual, and therefore not a mere appearance engendered by some heavenly or hellish power; itself actual, and therefore not an emanation from the being of God … God preserves the creatures in the reality which is distinct from His own. It is relative to and dependent upon His reality, but in its relativity and dependence autonmous towards it, existing because it owes its existence to Him, as subject with which He can have dealings and which have dealings with Him’ (III/3.86). Barth argues that divine providence in no way rules out creaturely agency, though it does locate such human freedom within the economy of grace. Barth will even speak of human autonomy, though he will always maintain that it is an autonomy given by God – a counter-intuitive sort of autonomy if ever there were one. [emboldening mine, that is Barth being quoted by Allen] [R. Michael Allen, Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics: And Introduction and Reader, 134 Nook version.]

And here are a few more quotes from Barth to help illustrate what Allen just sketched:

[…] the perfection of God’s giving of himself to man in the person of Jesus Christ consists in the fact that far from merely playing with man, far from merely moving or using him, far from dealing with him as an object, this self giving sets man up as a subject, awakens him to genuine individuality and autonomy, frees him, makes him a king, so that in his rule the kingly rule of God himself attains form and revelation. How can there be any possible rivalry here, let alone usurpation? How can there be any conflict between theonomy and autonomy? How can God be jealous or man self assertive? [CD I I/2, p. 179]

Genuine freedom as it is realized in Jesus is not a freedom from God but a freedom for God (and, with that, a freedom for other human beings). ‘ To the creature God determined, therefore, to give an individuality an autonomy, not that these gifts should be possessed outside Him, let alone against Him, but for him and within his kingdom; not in rivalry with his sovereignty but for its confirming and glorifying’ [CD I I/2, p. 178].

Ultimately, what is being argued is that there is no other ontological category known as ‘freedom’ by which humanity can operate. Even if human freedom, and I believe it is (in honoring the Creator/creature distinction), is independently contingent, it is still contingent and derived from God’s independent non-contingent freedom which is derived from nowhere but from His own Self determined, Free, and Triune life. If creation is the external reality of the Covenant of which God’s life is its inner ground – and I believe it is! – then creaturely freedom can only be understood from this position, from the purpose that is ec-statically given to it by Christ Himself; who according to Col. 1.15-20 is the point and purpose and ground of all of creation’s reality. Note:

15 The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. 19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

Jesus has realized, for us, in His resurrection and ascension what it truly means to be human. To be genuinely and humanly free, means to be free for God. The rest of creation recognizes this (on this earth day, ironically), us humans ought to repent and recognize this too!

18 I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. 19 For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. 20 For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that  the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. 23 Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? 25 But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently. ~Romans 8.18-25 


Why Evangelicals Shouldn’t Fear Karl Barth, on Scripture: Part 2

I am continuing this shortish series of mine on why Evangelicals shouldn’t be afraid to engage with, at least, Karl Barth. In my first post in this series I explained how I grew up in an Evangelical tradition (and still inhabit it in barthderspiegelways—I consider myself an Evangelical, at least sociologically, if not doctrinally, in some ways), and how that tradition made Karl Barth off-limits; how that tradition made Barth sound as if he was an evil ‘Liberal’ theologian, worse yet, a Neo-Orthodox theologian (which I had know clue at that point what that even was … other than it sounded scary and Neo!). Well, this series of posts, as the title highlights, is my weary attempt to demystify that pipe smoking Swiss theologian Karl Barth, in ways that illustrate (at least) why an Evangelical Christian should not fear this Swiss-man.

This post in particular briefly touches on Barth’s view of Scripture [I am using some end notes provided by R. Michael Allen from his Reader on Karl Barth’s theology to make this series go ’round]. As an Evangelical I was taught that Karl Barth, if in no other area, was most dangerous when it came to his view of Scripture; that he was an evil INERRANCY denier! It is true that Barth (and Thomas Torrance for that matter) did not endorse a Fundamentalist view of biblical inerrancy, but that said; he also was not militantly seeking to destroy people’s faith either—in this regard. Instead, Karl Barth wanted to provide a theory of revelation (and an ontology of scripture) that took it away from the manipulation and assumed lordliness of man (whether this evinced itself in rationalist/positivistic liberal theology, or rationalist/positivistic Fundamentalist theology)—and this point actually overlaps largely with my first post hereBarth engaged in a process of demolition which sought to level the foundation and cornerstones upon which the Fundamentalists and Liberals had built there theories (or lack thereof) of revelation and scripture. He sought to reobjectify God’s Word as truly God’s Word in Jesus Christ for us, and then subordinated the words of scripture the Lordliness of Jesus Christ as his last and final word (the alpha and omega) which gave orientation to the written Word of scripture. By doing this Barth intended to provide a grammar that disallowed man’s own subjectivism to be the ground and orientation upon which scripture found its reality; Barth’s concern here was that if scripture became contingent upon man saying that scripture was scripture, that scripture could no longer function in the way God had intended it. And that way was to be the ordained place wherein we encounter God’s final Word to us in Jesus Christ; giving way to Christ and the Spirit, and their usage of scripture to contradict the idolatry of our human hearts (including the idolatry of biblical scholarship and their criterion and methodologies which they constructed to prop scripture up as scripture in whatever relative form that might take). Here is how R. Michael Allen summarizes this:

[I]t is important to remember that Barth believes all things and persons (including God) have their ‘being in becoming’, though they do so in very different ways. The Bible has its being in becoming by God’s free decision to make it his Word again and again. Barth’s point is not to render its nature  as Word dependent on the subjective experience of the reader, but the renewal of God’s objective decision to speak through it. Barth has been misunderstood frequently by friend and foe alike. For helpful analysis of this point, see Bruce L. McCormack, ‘The Being of Holy Scripture is in Becoming: Karl Barth in Conversation with American Evangelical Criticism’, in Evangelicals and Scripture: Tradition, Authority, and Hermeneutics (ed. Vincent Bacote, Laura Miguélez, and Dennis Ockholm; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2004), pp. 55-75. [Allen, p. 38]

In case you are missing what is being communicated here; for Barth Scripture and Revelation are something that becomes over and over again, it is an event that happens. By presenting a theory of revelation in this way Barth could take scripture away from us as if it is some sort of static and absolute given (God’s revelation all by itself … annexed from God’s living voice in Christ) that we possess like a bag of chips; and give it back (so to speak) to God’s free, self-determined ongoing voice that is presented to us anew and afresh through the Holy Spirit’s breath which he breathes through the lips of Jesus for us (see Jn. 14–16). Allen writes of Barth in this vein: “[B]arth’s concern about the doctrine of inspiration ‘freezing’ this relationship of the written word and the willed revelation of God impels his talk of the Bible’s ‘becoming the Word of God’.” (p. 38)  So, Allen continues, “[T]he primacy of Jesus as the Word of God – that is, of God electing to be for us and with us in personal form – undergirds the graciousness of all human knowledge of God. The actuality of the written Word and the proclaimed Word flows from the incarnate Word and the very depths of the free Lord’s eternal decision to be with us and not without us…. (p. 38)

Why you shouldn’t be afraid of Karl Barth on scripture in plain language

Because when he was at a theological conference in the States somebody asked him why he believes in the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus Christ; he answered ‘Because Jesus loves me this I know, because the Bible tells me so.’ And he was serious. How can you be afraid of a theologian who gives a response like this? But more, Barth is way less concerned with destroying the idiosyncractic and Americanly inspired doctrine of inerrancy, and more concerned with ensuring that we have a view of scripture that allows God to have the key to scripture instead of us. Barth wants to give us a theory of revelation, or just a view of scripture, that genuinely has Jesus at its center, and that sees him as the canon of scripture instead of the church or the academy. Barth wants to provide a view of scripture that makes sure that we aren’t able to make God into our image, but that our self projected images are contradicted by his image revealed in Jesus Christ (Col. 1.15).

For Barth, Scripture is living and active, because its reality is seated at the right hand of God (Heb. 4.12; 7.25 etc.). He clearly rejects inerrancy in its American form (but so does the rest of the Christian world), but he does not reject the inerrant Word of God who is Jesus Christ, and he sees Scripture as Scripture because it has been and is ever anew inspired and illuminated by the Spirit’s breath as we are introduced over and over again through its human words to its reality in Jesus Christ.

Why Evangelicals Shouldn’t Fear Karl Barth: Part 1

I am going to do a series of posts on Karl Barth’s theology, with the particular aim of dispelling the Evangelical myths that kept me from him for so long. I am going to appeal to R. Michael Allen’s helpful recently released book, Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics: An Introduction and Reader; and in particular I will be using some of Allen’s end notes on Barth’s theology that he provides in his book at the end of chapter 2. Let’s get started.

barthI was just talking with my mom today on the phone, and somehow we ended up talking about theology; actually the way that happened was that we were talking about the turn I have made personally from the theology I was trained in at Multnomah. So I was attempting to explain to my mom why or how my approach, in general, starts at a different spot than most of my former professors at Multnomah University start from. My basic premise, in explanation to my mom, was that I don’t feel the burden in doing apologetics (i.e. defending the inerrancy of scripture, arguing for the existence of God, etc.) before I can do Biblical exegesis, Homiletics, Evangelism, Christian Dogmatics, etc. I was explaining to my mom that Karl Barth & co. has proved a great resource for me in moving forward into a way of thinking and living theologically that is actually more Evangelical than the premises from which Evangelicalism finds its orientation (i.e. philosophical foundationalism, propositionalism, etc.). Allen’s comment’s on Barth, in this direction, help to provide further insight into what I was (and am) getting at:

[3] The subject matter of dogmatics is given to God’s people: ‘Hence [dogmatics] does not have to begin by finding or inventing the standard by which it measures. It sees and recognizes that this is given  with the Church’ (I/1.12). Dogmatics is an activity of ‘the hearing church’ (I/2.797), a key theme in Reformed dogmatics that highlights the eccentric shape of Christian theology. Theology is by faith, not by sight, because it is governed by God’s speech, not our own immanent refelction, aspiration, or experience. Of course, dogmatics does involve reflection and real intellectual work, but this follows the prior work of God and (if done faithfully) never puts the cart before the horse. The hopeful confidence of those who do work in dogmatics is not grounded in or sustained by an optimistic assessment of their capacities, but by the promises of God to speak sovereignly, majestically, eloquently (see I/2.867). [R. Michael Allen, Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics: An Introduction and Reader, 37 (Nook version).]

Thus, God’s Word (scripture) is not contingent or dependent upon my establishing it as Scripture; through my philosophically attuned eruditeness and argumentation; God does not exist because I have proven that he does through the Kalam cosmological argument, or the moral argument. Instead, this is inverted to its rightful orientation; there is an order of being/order of knowing, wherein, logically and chronologically God precedes his creation as the one who graciously created. He is Lord, and we are not. Once I think that I have to sustain his Word as his Word, then I have just displaced his Lordness, and undercut his capacity to contradict my thought constructs and words. I have taken his Word (scripture) captive by making its veracity contingent upon my giveness (being) instead of God’s; this is a burden and idolatry too great to bear!

As Allen highlights, genuine Christian theology for Barth & co. is genuinely Christian because it simply presumes upon the reality and giveness of God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ. And it is through God’s primary giveness that the categories and emphases for how we do theology, ministry, preaching-teaching, evangelism, etc. take their shape.

As I explained this to my mom (who like me has grown up her whole life under Fundy/Evangelical emphases) she almost could not believe how anyone could not accept this; it seemed self-evident to her as I explained this to her, and the alternative theory of revelation that Barth & co. provides. My guess is that there are many American Evangelicals out there who are just waiting to have this kind of aha moment. So hopefully these posts will serve to fill this lacunae for any Evangelical who might happen upon this post[s]; and who is willing to thoughtfully engage in material consideration, and not give way to the usual caricatures and demonization that keeps most Evangelicals away from Barth & co. (which would include away from Evangelical Calvinism, so called, as well).