A little note on the freedom of the conscience

The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution.jpgWhen, in 1644, the great Baptist pastor Roger Williams defended the claim that Christ is King alone over conscience ‘was and is the summe of all true preaching of the Gospell or glad newes’ (The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution), he was articulating a basic tenet of what it means to do faith in the Free Church tradition. He was also signalling that as noble as the human conscience is, its freedom is not achieved by its being made into an idol. Rather, the conscience is free – and faith is truly voluntaristic – only insofar as it recognises the final authority of Another.

A few centuries later, another Free Churchman, one P. T. Forsyth, made the same point in his own way:

It is one of the fundamental mistakes we make about our own Protestantism to say that the authority is the conscience, and the Christian conscience in particular. Not so. The authority is nothing in us, but something in history. It is something given us. What is in us only recognises it. And the conscience which now recognises it has long been created by it. The conscience recognises the tone of injunction, but what is enjoined is given by history, and has passed into the historic consciousness. We have the inner intuition of what is really a great historic teleology. But it is not gathered up from all history by an induction, which, as history is far from finished, could never give us anything final or authoritative. It is defined in it at a fixed point by faith in the experienced revelation of final purpose within God’s act of Gospel there. The authority is not the conscience [or the Bible, or the Pope, or Magistrate, or State, or human experience, or culture, or vote, no matter how democratic] but it is offered to it. The conscience of God is not latent in our conscience, but revealed to it in history. It is history centred in Christ, it is not conscience, that is the real court of morals. And it is there accordingly that we find the authority for Christian faith and Christian theology, for faith and theology both. (The Principle of Authority)

The Danger of Outsourcing Morality

Jonathan SacksSome characteristically thoughtful words here from Jonathan Sacks in his acceptance speech for the Templeton Prize:

A free society is a moral achievement. Without self-restraint, without the capacity to defer the gratification of instinct, and without the habits of heart and deed that we call virtues, we will eventually lose our freedom … At some point the West abandoned this belief …

Morality itself was outsourced to the market. The market gives us choices, and morality itself is just a set of choices in which right or wrong have no meaning beyond the satisfaction or frustration of desire. The result is that we find it increasingly hard to understand why there might be things we want to do, can afford to do, and have a legal right to do, that nonetheless we should not do because they are unjust or dishonourable or disloyal or demeaning: in a word, unethical. Ethics was reduced to economics … [And] having reduced moral choice to economics, we transferred the consequences of our choices to politics.

And it seemed to work, at least for a generation or two. But by now problems have arisen that can’t be solved by the market or the state alone …

You can’t outsource conscience. You can’t delegate moral responsibility away …

But the West has, in the immortal words of Queen Elsa in Frozen, “Let it go”. It has externalised what it once internalised. It has outsourced responsibility. It’s reduced ethics to economics and politics. Which means we are dependent on the market and the state, forces we can do little to control. And one day our descendants will look back and ask, How did the West lose what once made it great?

Every observer of the grand sweep of history, from the prophets of Israel to the Islamic sage Ibn Khaldun, from Giambattista Vico to John Stuart Mill, and Bertrand Russell to Will Durant, has said essentially the same thing: that civilisations begin to die when they lose the moral passion that brought them into being in the first place. It happened to Greece and Rome, and it can happen to the West. The sure signs are these: a falling birthrate, moral decay, growing inequalities, a loss of trust in social institutions, self-indulgence on the part of the rich, hopelessness on the part of the poor, unintegrated minorities, a failure to make sacrifices in the present for the sake of the future, a loss of faith in old beliefs and no new vision to take their place. These are the danger signals and they are flashing now.

There is an alternative: to become inner-directed again. This means recovering the moral dimension that links our welfare to the welfare of others, making us collectively responsible for the common good. It means recovering the spiritual dimension that helps us tell the difference between the value of things and their price. We are more than consumers and voters; our dignity transcends what we earn and own. It means remembering that what’s important is not just satisfying our desires but also knowing which desires to satisfy. It means restraining ourselves in the present so that our children may have a viable future. It means reclaiming collective memory and identity so that society becomes less of a hotel and more of a home. In short, it means learning that there are some things we cannot or should not outsource, some responsibilities we cannot or should not delegate away.

We owe it to our children and grandchildren not to throw away what once made the West great, and not for the sake of some idealized past, but for the sake of a demanding and deeply challenging future. If we do simply let it go, if we continue to forget that a free society is a moral achievement that depends on habits of responsibility and restraint, then what will come next – be it Russia, China, ISIS or Iran – will be neither liberal nor democratic, and it will certainly not be free. We need to restate the moral and spiritual dimensions in the language of the twenty-first century, using the media of the twenty-first century, and in ways that are uniting rather than divisive.

One can read the full lecture here.

[Image: source]

Die Taufe ist kein Sakrament. Einsichten aus Karl Barths Sakramentsverständnis

WeinrichIt is a most humanising thing, gratitude. For it is not only the confession of our being-in-dependence, but it is also an expression of our remarkable freedom. We, in the Reformed tradition, do not talk nearly enough about freedom. And perhaps no one has brought this truth home to me more than my friend Michael Weinrich, to whom I am most grateful. I was delighted to learn that Michael recently gave a lecture on Karl Barth (a subject with which he is most familiar) and the sacraments, a lecture in which the promise and gift of freedom featured greatly. The lecture will, in due course, be published by Theologischen Verlag Zürich, but a summary/report is already available. It reads:

„Jesus Christus ist das eine Sakrament“. So versteht Karl Barth das Sakrament in der Kirchlichen Dogmatik (KD). Wie kommt Barth zu diesem Verständnis? Was sagt es über menschliche Freiheit und Gottes souveränes Gott-Sein? Seine Antworten und Thesen hat Michael Weinrich, Professor für Ökumenik und Systematik, auf dem Barth Symposion Anfang Mai vorgetragen.


Als Sakrament, sprich als Übersetzung des griechischen mysterion, bezeichnete Barth Taufe und Abendmahl in der KD nicht. Stattdessen sprach er von einem „Tatbekenntnis“ bzw. einer „freien menschlichen Tatantwort“ auf Gottes in Christus „vollzogene göttliche Wendung“ (KD IV/4, 81.IX.99).

Damit unterstreiche Barth, dass nicht nur ein „Gesinnungswechsel“, sondern eine neue „Lebensrichtung“ zur Debatte stehe, so Weinrich.

Ist die Wassertaufe menschliche Antwort auf das Sakrament der Geschichte Jesu Christi, handelt der Mensch als Subjekt. Er gibt, selbst frei, also als von Gott Befreiter, eine Antwort auf Gottes Anrede. Der Mensch entspricht Gottes Verheißung. Weinrich: „Erst in der dann vom Menschen frei gegebenen Antwort kommt die Anrede Gottes zu ihrem Ziel, in dem das ‚Es ist vollbracht!‘ auch zu der ihm entsprechenden Anerkennung findet.“


Das „christologisch orientierte Sakramentsverständnis in der KD“ sei eine Konsequenz, so Weinrichs These zugespitzt formuliert, von Barths Verankerung der Versöhnungslehre in der Bundestheologie. In dem Bund Gottes mit dem Menschen begegnen sich „der freie Gott“ und „der freie Mensch“ als Partner, als zwei Subjekte. Weinrich: „Der Bund ist essenziell auf die freie Antwort des Bundespartners ausgerichtet, die als solche eben auch eine ganz und gar menschliche Antwort zu sein hat ohne eine permanente Inanspruchnahme der Assistenz Gottes“.


Die „Entsakramentalisierung der Sakramente“ bei Barth sei „die Konsequenz einer bundestheologischen Vertiefung seiner Ekklesiologie“, so Weinrich. In dieser müsse Gott Gott bleiben können und der Mensch Mensch. Hier wird der „schmale Grat der Freiheit“ betreten, der menschlichen Freiheit im Bund mit Gott.

Taufe und Abendmahl seien so verstanden keine „geheimnisvollen Rituale“, sondern „gemeinschaftlich eingebundene freie menschliche Antworten des von Gott angesprochenen und auf Gott hörenden Menschen“.

Dabei verweise die Taufe auf die im Geist vermittelte „Begründung“ des christlichen Lebens in Christus und das Abendmahl auf seine allein von Christus zu erwartende „Erneuerung“ (vgl. KD IV/4,72f.).


Diese bundestheologische Auslegung von Taufe und Abendmahl wirft einen kritischen Blick auf die Sakramentalisierung der Kirche. Weinrich gibt – mit Barth – zu bedenken:

„Die weithin in den Kirchen vollzogene Sakramentalisierung der Taufe ebenso wie des Abendmahls bedeuten keine Aufwertung beider, sondern deren Doketisierung [Zuschreibung eines Scheinleibes Christi, bs] zu ‚einem sonderbar konkurrierenden Duplikat der Geschichte Jesu Christi‘ (KD IV/4, 112), die sie ihrer spezifischen Würde als freies Tatbekenntnis berauben, indem sie nun selbst als Gnaden-mittel (Sakrament) ausgegeben werden.

Anstatt Sakramente als Zeichen von Gottes Handeln in Konkurrenz zur Geschichte Gottes mit Jesus Christus aufzubauen, gelte es, das Mysterium der Offenbarung in Jesus Christus zu respektieren, so Barth (vgl. KD IV/4, 168).

Als Sakrament „im Sinne von Heilsoffenbarung oder Heilswerk, Sündenreinigung, Gnadeneingießung oder Wiedergeburt“ schwäche die Taufe „einerseits die entscheidende Deutlichkeit des Christusgeschehens“ (KD IV/4, 233) und gefährde „anderseits die sich hier erschließende Perspektive auf die freie Beteiligung des Menschen in dem erfüllten Bund.“

Fazit: Die Würde der Taufe glänzt „in der befreiten Umkehr zu Gott als das Humanste, was ein Mensch zu tun vermag“ (vgl. KD IV/4, 157), sie besteht nicht in der Zuschreibung eines sakramentalen Sinns.

Aung San Suu Kyi: the 2011 Reith Lectures

This year’s Reith Lectures address the theme ‘Securing Freedom’. The five lectures are being given by the Burmese pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and former Director-General of MI5, Baroness Manningham-Buller. Aung San Suu Kyi’s lectures focus on the struggle for democracy inside an authoritarian regime, and Eliza Manningham-Buller’s will consider how, once secured, a country maintains its freedom.

The first two of these lectures are now available, and are unsurprisingly inspiring:


William Stringfellow, Free in Obedience – Part V

The final chapter in Free in Obedience is a reflection on the freedom of God, which the opening paragraph describes thus:

‘The freedom of God in his ruling love for this world in this world is not at all coincident with, contingent upon, nor captive of the Church, much less so of the churches or of individual Christians. If the Church or those within the churches do not see and honor the freedom of God, if they will not thus acknowledge and worship God, if they persist in vain commendations of themselves instead of in gladness in the Word of God, if they indulge in boasting witness to themselves rather than bragging of their weakness to explain and attest God’s grace and strength, if they conceive of salvation as in part attributable to themselves and not wholly the gift of God’s initiative in this world, then God, as has been the case before, in his terrible and magnificent generosity with himself in the world, will simply find his own way of working his will and do without the churchly institutions and those who profess to be Christians and, so to speak, take over wholly himself the ministry of the Church’ (pp. 107–8).

This is a chapter written with Bonhoeffer-like boldness, where the demarcation often made (by pietists and moralists) between ‘being’ and ‘doing’ is erased, as is the case in love. So what then is the believer’s task in the world? It is, Stringfellow contends, ‘to so enjoy the Word in the world as to attest the veracity of the Word of God for all men in any and every event’ (p. 117), it is to witness to the one Word of God in the gospel, an action which is always an ‘inherently sacramental event’ (p. 117) and as such is a ‘festival of the event of reconciliation already taking place in the midst of history’ (p. 118). He warns that where the sacraments fail to represent the unity of being and doing in the Church then they become idols, ‘no different from the other principalities of tradition and institution in the world’ (p. 119) and their use then becomes idolatrous. He also warns that ‘when the forms of the sacraments become idols and the sacraments become radically secularized, the world is misled about the meaning and grandeur of God’s work and bewildered about the scope and substance of the Christian faith’ (p. 119). He writes about church offerings, about the daily work and witness of God’s people in the world, and about how Christian freedom consists of the acceptance of the fact of one’s own justification as the work of divine freedom which relieves believers of the anxieties over how God judges us. The believer can therefore live and act, whatever the circumstances, without fear of, or bondage to, either their own death or the works of death in the world. The believer is both enabled and authorised by the gift of the Spirit in baptism to ‘expose all that death has done and can do, rejoicing in the freedom of God which liberates all men, all principalities, all things from bondage to death’ (p. 128). He continues:

‘That being so, the Christian is free to give his own life to the world, to anybody at all, even to one who does not know about or acknowledge the gift, even to one whom the world would regard as unworthy of the gift. He does so without reserve, compromise, hesitation, or prudence, but with modesty, assurance, truth and serenity. That being so, the Christian is free, within the freedom of God, to be obedient unto his own death’. (p. 128)

Don’t forget Wipf & Stock’s offer to readers of Per Crucem ad Lucem of 40% off the retail price of any of the Stringfellow volumes. To obtain the 40% discount, just include the coupon code STRINGFELLOW with your order.

… becoming estranged from the earth

‘We do not rule; instead we are ruled. The thing, the world, rules humankind; humankind is a prisoner, a slave, of the world, and its dominion is an illusion. Technology is the power with which the earth seizes hold of humankind and masters it. And because we no longer rule, we lose the ground so that the earth no longer remains our earth, and we become estranged from the earth. The reason why we fail to rule, however, is because we do not know the world as God’s creation and do not accept the dominion we have as God-given but seize hold of it for ourselves … There is no dominion without serving God; in losing the one humankind necessarily loses the other. Without God, without their brothers and sisters, human beings lose the earth’. — Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Creation and Fall, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 3 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004), 67.

[HT: W. Travis McMaken]

Forsyth on liberty, truth and thinking for yourself

forsyth-12A few days ago, I posted a cartoon which included the caption [from the lips of a teacher]: ‘When writing your essays, I encourage you to think for yourselves while you express what I’d most agree with’. The post drew a thoughtful response from Andre who suggested that the cartoon raised a number of important questions, including one about ‘whether the command to “think for yourselves” isn’t also a product of late-capitalism, a variant of the command to enjoy’. I’d been thinking about Andre’s statement when I re-read Forsyth’s 1908 essay on ”The Love of Liberty and the Love of Truth’, an essay, I think, which contributes an essential mix into the issues that the Andre raises, and which I will keep pondering:

‘The New Testament knows nothing explicitly of the liberty to pursue truth. That blessing is of science and the modern age. It is not religious in its historical origin. And, in so far as it is religious at all it is the inevitable, but indirect result of another and greater liberty, which is that of the New Testament, the liberty that truth must pursue because truth first creates it. Free thought is not a primary Christian interest’. (p. 160)

‘… freedom is a thing entirely conditioned by the nature of its authority, of the reality to which it answers and owes its being’ (p. 161)

‘… theological freedom must always be limited by the Gospel that makes a Church a Church, makes it live, and makes its life free. Theology in a university, as an academic science, has a freedom (and a feebleness) which it can have in no Church. A Church of free thought would be no Church at all, but the most sectarian of sects, and the most scholastic of schools. There is something almost boyish in the aggressive use of a pulpit for free thought propaganda’. (p. 162)

‘The Church of a real Gospel is called to something more than a vague zeal for liberty as an unchartered freedom. It is called to throw its weight upon the positive Evangel which makes it free. For liberty itself could become an idol, and could be used for a cloak to hide the poverty of our faith, and to express a sympathy too soft to be firm or true’. (p. 168)

‘It has been said that the creeds represent extravagances and eccentricities imported into a simple Christianity. But to the historic eye it is rather the other way. They represent on the whole the growing corporate life which normally shed the raw Gnostic extravagances of youth. Unfortunately they came to be canonised in perpetuity, and used as means of oppression and obscurantism by their epigoni. And it was to prevent such abuse that churches arose in which the form of faith was non-confessional, based on an honest evangelical understanding, which was declaratory at most, and not exclusive … But of course if such trustful freedom became an evangelical failure, there is a natural danger that many minds would for practical purposes turn from an internal to an external authority, and would return to the idea of a brief and revisable creed which should be of obligation, as the only means of saving the Churches from dissolving into star dust and luminous mist’. (p. 170)

Solzhenitsyn on the direction of freedom

‘Destructive and irresponsible freedom has been granted boundless space. Society appears to have little defense against the abyss of human decadence, such as, for example, misuse of liberty for moral violence against young people, motion pictures full of pornography, crime and horror. It is considered to be part of freedom and theoretically counter-balanced by the young people’s right not to look or not to accept. Life organized legalistically has thus shown its inability to defend itself against the corrosion of evil.

And what shall we say about the dark realm of criminality as such? Legal frames (especially in the United States) are broad enough to encourage not only individual freedom but also certain individual crimes. The culprit can go unpunished or obtain undeserved leniency with the support of thousands of public defenders. When a government starts an earnest fight against terrorism, public opinion immediately accuses it of violating the terrorists’ civil rights. There are many such cases’.

– Alexander Solzhenitsyn, ‘A World Split Apart’ (A paper presented at the Harvard Class Day Afternoon Exercises, Harvard University, Thursday, 8 June, 1978).

Barth on being an American theologian

Having recently watched Lions for Lambs, I was again reminded of Barth’s words spoken in Chicago on 26 April 1962 (audio here):

If I myself were an American citizen and a Christian and a theologian, then I would try to elaborate a theology of freedom – a theology of freedom from, let us say, from any inferiority complex over against good old Europe from whence you all came, or your fathers. You do not need to have such an inferiority complex. That is what I have learned these weeks. You may also have freedom from a superiority complex, let us say, over against Asia and Africa. That’s a complex without reason. Then I may add – [your theology should also be marked by] freedom from fear of communism, Russia, inevitable nuclear warfare and generally speaking, from all the afore-mentioned principalities and powers. Freedom for which you would stand would be the freedom for – I like to say a single word – humanity. Being an American theologian, I would then look at the Statue of Liberty in the New York Harbor. I have not seen that lady, except in pictures. Next week I shall see her in person. That lady needs certainly a little or, perhaps, a good bit of demythologization. Nevertheless, maybe she may also be seen and interpreted and understood as a symbol of a true theology, not of liberty, but of freedom. Well, it would be necessarily, a theology of freedom. Of that freedom to which the Son frees us [cf. Jn 8.36], and which as His gift, is the one real human freedom. My last question for this evening is this: Will such a specific American theology one day arise? I hope so.’

Kierkegaard on Protestantism

One of my brighter students recently charged the Apostle Paul with ‘self-congratulatory arrogance’. It reminded me of Kierkegaard’s biting words about the form that Protestantism is taking, and perhaps increasingly so:

‘Protestantism is the crudest and most brutal plebeianism. People will not hear of there being any difference of quality between an apostle, a witness to the truth and oneself, in spite of the fact that one’s existence is completely different from theirs, as different as eating from being eaten’. – Søren Kierkegaard, The Journals of Kierkegaard (ed. Alexander Dru; New York: Harper & Brothers, 1959), 245.

I wonder what the Dane would say if he spent a week or so with the average Protestant church today? Ouch! The fundamental issue, of course, is that of authority, coupled with a noxious and mendacious understanding of creaturely freedom. There can be no true freedom where there is no true authority. Where the latter is lost, the former disappears. So O’Donovan reminds us, ‘To be under authority is to be freer than to be independent’. – Oliver O’Donovan, The Ways of Judgment, 132.

Žižek on transcendent meaning, authority and freedom

Commenting on Job’s three theological friends, Slavoj Žižek contends that ‘God is the only true materialist … [God] comes and says there is no transcendent meaning, everything is a miracle … there is no transcendent master, which is why I think we have to read Christ as a repetition of Job. What dies on the cross with Christ? What dies is not an earthly representative of a transcendent. What dies is precisely God as this transcendent master of the universe. What dies on the cross for me is the idea of God as the ultimate guarantee of meaning … The lesson of Christianity … of Christ … [is that] we cannot afford this withdrawal. When we are confronted with horrible things … holocaust, concentration camps or other similar catastrophes it is a little bit vulgar to say, “This only appears to us as a catastrophe because of your limited perspective, withdrawal back and you will see how it contributes to harmony, or whatever”. There is no big other! This is why I think this would be a kind of more materialist reading why Christ truly sacrificed himself. The message is “All we can do is here”; there is no father up there who takes care of it … It is not “Trust God”. No. God trusts us. All that can be done, we should do it. In this sense, with this incomplete notion of reality, … it opens up the space for freedom. There is freedom only in an ontologically unfinished reality’.

While I generally do find Žižek to be a really stimulating thinker, what I find most disturbing here in this particular presentation is his notion of authority and freedom. To be sure, he never seems to challenge the relative need of authority in the area of sociality. However, if I have heard him correctly (and it’s a genuine ‘if’ on my part) when he comes to the purlieus of belief, of faith, the assumption is that we must abandon authority. It is at this point (though not at this point alone) that he so clearly betrays a failure to understand what constitutes a Christian notion of authority. For Žižek, authority is not a power but a force, a coercive burden to be shaken off rather than a love and true freedom to live in. Employing Forsyth here, I want to suggest that Žižek’s notion of authority is not ‘the source of liberty, but its load. It is something which sooner or later must produce impatience and not bring peace. It is something to be renounced as men pass to spiritual maturity. The more spiritual they consider themselves, the less they like to feel, think, or speak of authority’. There is no sense in Žižek’s notion of authority of one who employs his authority to set people – indeed his enemies – free.

Truly, ‘God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God’ (1 Cor 1:28). This one who though he was in the form of God became the ‘low and despised’ one taught us that ‘whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many’ (Mark 10:43-45).

In this alone is true creaturely freedom. To assert, a Žižek does, that freedom exists ‘only in an ontologically unfinished reality’ is to deny the incarnation of God into our world, and the (cruci)-form that such authority takes. There is no greater freedom than to live under true authority. This is our gifted freedom. If God is creator, not merely in the sense of being the one who began all things but also in the decisive sense of being one who sustains all things from moment to moment by his gracious will then we must confess that no freedom exists apart from him. As C. Stephen Evans notes in his delightful book, Kierkegaard’s Fragments and Postscript: The Religious Philosophy of Johannes Climacus, ‘Because of God man is something; he is in fact a nobel something, created for eternal life with God. But his nobility lies precisely in his ability freely to recognize or fail to recognize his dependence on God. This freedom means that man is to an extent independent of God. But even his independence is itself dependent upon God’s creative power, most properly used when man recognizes – freely – his dependence’. (p. 170)

(If I have read Žižek incorrectly here, I apologise. Please take this as an invitation to help me try and understand this important thinker rightly on this point.)

Freedom and Power

There is a sense in which the nature of God’s own Godhood is such that God had to become incarnate. However, far from being a limitation, the Incarnation is the supreme act of God’s freedom and the concentration of God’s power in one person. God’s power is never aimless or wild. And no other limits God’s power. Divine power, true power, is limited insofar as it is always concentrated toward one goal or end. Any limitation is a self-limitation, and that for one end. For Forsyth, that end is the securing of holiness for God and for creation. Unlike the (super?)powers of this world, God’s use of power is ever with a view to love – to love the other, to love his enemies – a love that takes cruciform shape, dying even for those who would wish him dead.

… limitation is a power of Godhead, not a curtailment of it. Among the infinite powers of the Omnipotent must be the power to limit Himself, and among His glories the grace to bend and die. Incarnation is not impossible to the Infinite; it is necessary. If He could not come incarnate His infinitude would be partial and limited. It would not be complete. It would be limited to all that is outside human nature. It would be limited by human nature in the sense of not being able to enter it, of being stopped at its gates. God would be curtailed to the extent of His creation. And that would be a more fatal limitation to His power than any He could suffer from being in it. He may be in without being locked in. (PT Forsyth, God the Holy Father, 33)

Painting: Rembrandt’s Holy Family (1640); Oil on wood, 41 x 34 cm; Musee du Louvre, Paris.

Kierkegaard on the Church’s freedom , and the faithfulness of depression

‘If the Church is “free” from the state, it’s all good. I can immediately fit in this situation. But if the Church is to be emancipated, then I must ask: By what means, in what way? A religious movement must be served religiously – otherwise it is a sham! Consequently, the emancipation must come about through martyrdom – bloody or bloodless. The price of purchase is the spiritual attitude. But those who wish to emancipate the Church by secular and worldly means (i.e. no martyrdom), they’ve introduced a conception of tolerance entirely consonant with that of the entire world, where tolerance equals indifference, and that is the most terrible offence against Christianity … [T]he doctrine of the established Church, its organization, are both very good indeed. Oh, but then our lives: believe me, they are indeed wretched’. – Søren Kierkegaard, Journals (January 1851)

‘In addition to my other numerous acquaintances, I have one more intimate confidant. My depression is the most faithful mistress I have known – no wonder, then, that I return the love’. – Søren Kierkegaard

The Gospel According to the Beatles

In the latest CT, LaTonya Taylor reviews Steve Turner’s latest offering, The Gospel According to the Beatles. Here ’tis:

Veteran music journalist Steve Turner explores the spiritual paths of the Beatles—both collectively and as individuals—in this deftly and densely reported combination of cultural history, comparative religion, and biocritical insight. “The gospel of the Beatles is not found in their conformity to an orthodox creed,” he notes, “but in their hunger for transcendence.”

Turner begins by reporting the furor that erupted over John Lennon’s infamous (and widely misunderstood) 1966 comment that the Beatles were “more popular than Jesus now,” then compares the Fab Four to magical, shamanistic storytellers who shared the insights they gained through their spiritual explorations with an audience enmeshed in political, cultural, philosophical, and religious upheaval.

Turner wisely avoids the temptation to force the Beatles’ hope for freedom, unity, and peace into a Christian mold. Indeed, Turner focuses heavily on their use of drugs and forays into Eastern religion and the occult in search of enlightenment and spiritual insight. Still, Turner thoughtfully demonstrates ways the Beatles’ search reflects the continuing influence of Christianity: “They were skeptical and even dismissive of the church, yet many of their core beliefs—love, peace, hope, truth, freedom, honesty, transcendence—were, in their case, secularized versions of Christian teachings.

Can anyone who has read this book tell me if it is worth reading?

On Freedom

‘The practice of my freedom is that I am opened to the possibility by utterly various and unpredictable gifts which the Spirit gives other members of the church. Freedom is being able to drink from one cup with the rich and the poor, the healthy and the alarmingly diseased. Freedom is having to forgive and be forgiven.’ (Robert W. Jenson, On Thinking the Human: Resolutions of Difficult Notions (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2003), 44)

Only God Is Free

Openness theology is being hotly debated in evangelical churches and theological societies. Very often, the discussions center on the word freedom. If God has granted human beings genuine freedom, openness theologians argue, the future must be genuinely open. God, they conclude, must restrict his own knowledge and simply refuse to know in advance everything we’re going to do. Therefore God puts himself in the position of having to react to history, “repenting” of previous vows, changing his mind about what he is going to do.

In such discussions, human freedom is spoken of as if it were genuine and real, and God’s freedom is spoken of as if it were limited. This is an unusual assumption in the history of Christian theology, and it would be well for us to note it. Space limitations preclude countering these arguments fully. Here, a simple restating of traditional Christian notions of freedom will have to do.

Not-so-Free at Last
To begin with, it is important to realize that human freedom is actually a very limited freedom. This might not be apparent, for it seems we make choices and do things we want to do. Behind this freedom, however, there stand many factors that influence and restrict our choices.

For example, have we not been launched into the world without anyone consulting us? Yes, our parents made a choice, but we ourselves did not. We were never free to decide that we would enter this world. Our birth depended upon some extraneous activity.

Again, what kind of a world was it into which we were launched? Did we have any say regarding it? Not at all. We might have preferred some very different world, such as a nonmaterial world, a world of pure mind or spirit.

But we had no choice. We are forced to live a life that is, in part, physical. We cannot change it. We have to make the best of it.

Were we allowed to express some racial preference at birth? No. We were born Europeans or Americans, Africans, Asians, Latinos—with all the associated advantages and disadvantages. We have no choice in this matter. We have to belong to this or that racial category.

What say did we have in relation to the social structure into which we were born? None. The structure existed long before our birth. And even as we grow older, we cannot always change it. Suppose we were born slaves, or medieval serfs, condemned to live lives of toil and poverty and with little hope of escape. Perhaps our social structure offers hope of education. But perhaps it does not.

Perhaps we are born into a Christian society. But perhaps, too, we come into the Muslim or the Hindu world, or one that is animistic, or atheistic. Did we have anything to say about this?

Does our freedom mean that we have never been influenced by others? Of course it does not. All kinds of people—parents, teachers, relatives, friends, colleagues—have helped to make us who we now are and thus have shaped our choices. Here, too, our freedom is a limited freedom.

We enter a society full of laws and customs not of our choosing. We might, of course, break laws or customs. We might become criminals or rebels. We might demonstrate our freedom in this way. But society has sanctions. The loss of freedom by imprisonment might be the penalty for criminal activity. And if we are rebels, society might shun us and prevent us from achieving our ends. Even here, then, freedom of choice and action is limited.

Even so-called artistic creativity is limited. Artists can only work with what already exists in our universe or with materials that humans manufacture—clay, canvas, carving knives, brushes. It is surely nonsensical to compare our puny efforts at creativity with the creative work of God—who made all things from nothing by the word of his mouth. Cocreators? No. At very best subcreators!

Hemmed in by Environment
Maybe real freedom lies in the moral sphere. But are the choices we make between good and evil entirely our own? Have not many factors—parental teaching, law and custom, the form of society, the religious background—contributed to our decisions, many of which are outside our own control? No, we are not compelled by any of these factors to choose this or that option. But ours is a limited freedom. Indeed, we are also restricted by what will result for others through our choices. Few of us live totally autonomous lives. We belong to communities, and in different ways these communities impose restrictions upon our freedom.

Do not heredity and the environment play a part in the moral no less than the physical sphere? Are we not the victims of all that has been done before us and all that is being done around us? This is the point made by the doctrine of original sin. Sinfulness is not merely individual. It is also collective. What our forebears did, and what others are doing around us, profoundly influence our own choices and in many cases restrict them.

But there is more. Because sinning is addictive, it too restricts our freedom. This addictive power of sin finds graphic illustration in those who become entrapped by drink or drugs. It applies also to other forms of entanglement: ambition, lying, theft, the love of money, or the love of power. Those who use their moral freedom in this way easily lose much of their freedom. Yes, we are free to do what is wrong, but as Paul tells us, this kind of freedom is in fact a slavery to sin (Rom. 7:11ff.). It also carries with it serious consequences (Gal. 6:7). Speaking of collective as well as individual sin and guilt, a German writer put it well: “World history is world judgment.” Sinning brings corruption, and corruption involves the extinction of human freedom.

In the end, any human freedom we do enjoy is always hemmed in. At best, human beings have only the freedom to react to the circumstances in which they find themselves.

No Mere Ad Hoc Reactor
In sharp contrast to the serious and often fatal limitations of human freedom is the total unlimitedness of divine freedom. In his dealings with us, God does work in time and space. Does this mean that he is subject to their limitations? Not at all! Unlike us, God made time and space but dwells in eternity. He operates within time and space out of the context of his eternal will and purpose.

In making time and space, God created the world into which we were launched at birth, our limited bodily and moral lives. That we are born, that we grow, that we gain and dispose of various resources, that we may suffer illnesses, and then that we age and die—all these are divinely appointed (cf. Ps. 139:13ff.).

Did God intend that we should be the victims of sickness and death? Perhaps not. But does this mean that God’s purposes have been resisted? Not at all! There is no limitation on God. Human sin brings spiritual death, but it also brings physical suffering and physical death as well—and this was the consequence that God freely chose. His response to human sin was something he had planned—and planned in freedom. It was no mere ad hoc reaction. In his freedom, God gave us the limited freedom to choose good or evil. Foreseeing in eternity what that choice would be, he also foreordained the consequence (Rom. 1:18ff., James 1:14ff.).

Does he realize that thousands among us are condemned to lives of poverty, ignorance, conflict, and religious falsehood—circumstances that, among other things, severely restrict our freedom? Indeed he does realize this, for in his freedom, God has supervised the setting of our lives. Though these conditions result from human folly and sin (abuses of human freedom), God has also in his eternal freedom provided a remedy, even before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4). Ready to suffer with us, he also redeems.

Unlike our existence, God’s work in time and space does not restrict his freedom. God’s being is spiritual: Physical limitations do not apply to him (Ps.139:7ff.). God’s being is eternal: He can act freely in all the tenses of time (Isa. 42:9; 44:7). In fact, God is there already in all the factors that influence our choices. He is there in the choices that we make, the words we speak, and the acts we perform. He is there in the results and ramifications of these choices, words, and acts, interweaving them with the choices, words, and acts of others in order to achieve the divine purposes of grace and judgment.

What about human sinfulness? Does not this constitute a limitation on the freedom of God? Right choices, of course, obviously do not conflict with the divine freedom. But supposing we make wrong choices, as we so often do—does not conflict arise? Does not our action restrict the divine freedom, prevent God from achieving his purposes, and force him into forms of action that he had not originally contemplated? And when we repent of our misdeeds, do we not bring a new pressure upon God, forcing him to reconsider the new approach that he had planned? In other words, does not the sinful use (or abuse) of human freedom impose a limitation on the divine freedom? This is the main question openness theologians ask.

In reply, we need to recognize that the freedom of God is not like human freedom. God is free to grant some freedom to creatures, yet also free to control the destiny of these creatures, to overrule their freedom in fulfillment of his own ends. In divine righteousness, God’s freedom from the very outset imposes penalties on abuses of our limited freedom. In divine grace, God freely seeks a saving outcome even for sinful creatures. This is authentic freedom, and it transcends by far our thinking about freedom (Isa. 55:8ff.).

God in his freedom can use even our transgressions as instruments of his grace. Even as he reproves and smites he can also bind up and heal (Job 5:17ff.). He is not forced into last-minute decisions brought on by human decisions. God in his freedom was open to human choices. He was also ready for all eventualities, and he would at once give the foreseen appropriate response. In his divine freedom, therefore, God is never placed at risk.

God is also free to intervene in human affairs, transcending the seeming laws that he himself has made. From one point of view, everything God does in and with and through his creatures is an immanent intervention. Do we not pray to God that he will intervene? And are not our prayers in many cases answered?

At times, however, God in his freedom intervenes in a way that confounds the rule of cause and effect. These interventions are miracles. The freedom of God means that he is able to intervene miraculously whenever he sees fit.

Supreme among these free interventions were the Incarnation and Resurrection of the divine Son. The eternal freedom of God allowed human freedom to abound in its abuses, plotting against the divine Son, hounding him to judgment, condemning him unjustly, crucifying him, and thus incurring the guilt. Nevertheless, God’s freedom was still in control. The passion of God—the suffering and death of Christ—was itself the action of God. Out of this welter of human ignorance, folly, and viciousness, God accomplished reconciliation, the “sweet exchange” whereby Jesus took to himself our sin and thus enabled us to become righteous—and truly free—in him (2 Cor. 5:21).

Salvation and authentic human freedom (Rom. 6:22; Gal. 5:1) are the true goals of the God who “loves in freedom” (as Karl Barth put it)—as the free Creator, the free Reconciler, and the free Redeemer.

This traditional view not only makes room for human and divine freedom, but also better understands how they are alike and different. Discussions of openness theology should take this view into account more regularly.

This paper is by Geoffrey Bromiley, professor emeritus at Fuller Theological Seminary. It’s taken from Christianity Today, February 4, 2002, Vol. 46, No. 2, Pages 72-5.

Forsyth’s Moral Humanity

Human beings, says Forsyth, ‘were made with a moral nature for supremely moral issues’. To deny or disguise this with some kind of Hegelian idealism, or to seek to explore this reality within the scope of empirical science, is to fraud human nature as it truly is and to rob human persons of obligation, responsibility, and freedom of soul, which is ‘the real spring of human progress and the real condition of glory’, and to give them over to ‘the vagrancy of the moment’s appetite and the slavery of chance desires.’ To ignore this is not only to live in unreality, ‘severed from the great moral whole which gives [us our] reality’, but is to undermine the whole economy of the human soul and its created freedom, and to cheat faith, even Jesus’ faith, of its ‘one creative, authoritative, life-making, life-giving, life-shaping power.’ That is why ‘the man of mere culture is shut out from the best it is in him to be.’