Wednesday, 6 August 2008

Karl Barth and divine freedom

Following the recent exchange with Paul Molnar, Halden has posted a superb quote from Alan Lewis on Karl Barth’s understanding of divine freedom. This is a remarkably acute and perceptive account of Barth’s view – and it rightly draws attention to some of the internal tensions and inconsistencies that remain within the Church Dogmatics:

“God is free, not as one who could do otherwise, but as the one above all who can do no other. Self-bound to one sole way of being, God is committed, necessarily but thus freely, to the cognate course of action. God’s lordship in bowing to the contradiction of the godless cross and godforsaken grace does not reside, as Barth occasionally and illogically asserts, in a prior self-sufficiency and secure immutability, but – as he more often understood and later followers more emphatically underscored – in the uncoerced impulse to self-consistency: love’s determination not to be deflected from its purposes but to flourish and perfect itself through willing self-surrender. What judges us as burdensome imperative illuminates God as free but binding indicative: the truth – for our Creator and therefore for ourselves – that only one who gives up life discovers and fulfills it. On such a basis alone can we understand how the cross and grave truly reveal God’s inmost triune life.”

—Alan E. Lewis, Between Cross and Resurrection: A Theology of Holy Saturday (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), pp. 211-12.

(Oh, and speaking of Barth, this pastor in Britain is looking for someone to buy his complete set of Church Dogmatics.)

7 Comments:

Chris Donato said...

"…uncoerced impulse to self-consistency: love’s determination not to be deflected from its purposes but to flourish and perfect itself through willing self-surrender."

Most of this phrase is perfectly consistent with historical theology proper: God's actions are consistent with who he is. But what's this notion of "love's determination…to perfect itself"? How does this avoid injecting potentiality in God's being? God became man. How can we possibly explain that? (Should we even try?)

graham old said...

Thanks for the link, Ben.

Chris, I'm not sure if it's injecting potentiality, as much as becoming.

I'm reminded of a quote from Edwards to the effect that it is no insufficiency in a fountain that it is apt to overflow.

george hunsinger said...

What Alan Lewis says is all very well, but it's not quite accurate.

Barth had a profound sense of God's being as something eternally and infinitely rich -- and thus of the divine immensity. God's possibilities simply do not conform to our puny and fallen notions of what would count as "self-consistency" for God. Barth often argued that while God does not choose to be God without us, God might very well have done so without any self-contradiction.

For Barth this inalienable background of the divine immensity only brought home all the more how gracious God was in his condescension and extreme self-abnegation for our sakes in Christ.

For Bonhoeffer and others (including Alan Lewis), Barth was wrong to place the divine love in a context determined by absolute divine freedom rather than the other way around.

There are deep differences here between the Reformed and the Lutheran traditions (among other things), but at this point, Barth was thoroughly Reformed, for good or for ill. His view at least has the merit of protecting itself against all sentimentality and anthropocentricity in theology.

Erin said...

As I lean towards the Reformed side (can you do that?), I get nervous reading passages like this for fear of opening the door to a kind of "natural law ethic" that Niebuhr wrote of, not that it is Lewis' intent. Am I off base in this? Of course, there are a lot of things that make me nervous.

Chris Donato said...

Well, as Reformed "tinkers" we ought not be afraid of the lex naturae or Calvin's sensus divinitatis—insofar as we understand that only those enabled by the power of God's Spirit are those who are daily being conformed to it.

Antebip said...

Does anyone know who wrote the following?

“Barth wishes to hearken only to God, and he wishes only to hearken to God. Yet when he speaks, and most of all when he speaks in order to proclaim that man must only listen to God, it is he himself that speaks, he himself that is heard, and it is his personality which moves and stirs his listeners.”

And again, “God speaks, says Karl Barth, and man listens and repeats what God has said. But unfortunately, as is inevitable as soon as a man makes himself God’s interpreter, God speaks and the Barthian listens and repeats what Barth has said.”

postbip said...

Why antebip, wasn’t that Maritain and Gilson? And don’t they just expose that Barthian sentimentality in its anthropocentric core? After all, how can you have grace without nature or a revealed theology without a natural one?

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