Freedom for a Real God

Two points in Karl Barth’s articulation of the Spirit’s revelation of the Word of God to humanity deserve fresh hearing in a world that tends to go a very different direction.

One of these is the issue of freedom. I find that human freedom is one of the bedrock assumptions that most of my students bring to the text of scripture with them. Sometimes this is couched in terms of “free will” as over against a “predestinarian” understanding of how we come to be in relationship with God. But often it is not so specifically developed.

What my students assume, by and large, is that we are free, as humans, to choose for God or to choose against God as God is offered to us in Christ.

Barth Experiences God Via His Pipe

Barth challenges this assumption on any number of levels. The idea that humanity is capable due to its own ontology to respond to God is an idea he confronts, insisting that the freedom we have to be for God is the freedom which God Himself gives us by the power of the Holy Spirit.

I think Barth is picking up on a crucial thread of biblical teaching.

These days we are increasingly happy with the “atonement model” of Christus Victor. At the root of this vision of salvation is a recognition that the world is enslaved to hostile powers. Paul talks about the world being subjected to the powers of sin and death.

Christ comes to redeem.

Look at the language. Enslavement. Subjection. Redemption.

The assumption in each of these is that we are not free except insofar as we participate in the freeing act of Christ. We need to rethink what sort of freedom we do and do not have inside and outside of Christ. I don’t think that a classic Calvinist articulation is necessarily the way to go, but it is on to something.

The other place where Barth has something to remind us of is that this God for whom we are freed by the power of the Spirit is a true God who is outside ourselves.

I had a conversation once that went something like this:

  • “I spend time reading the Bible and praying in the morning.”
  • “That’s great that you clear out time for yourself. I wish I did that more.”

Without bringing too much theological critique to bear on this normal conversation, it was reflective of two very different views of the world.

I believe that when I pray and read scripture I am actually spending time with a true God and subjecting my life to, or summoning the aid of, the true Lord who reigns over the earth.

Barth reminds us that Christian celebration of the experience of the Spirit is not a celebration of our own spirits, or of finding a lost place inside of ourselves. It is the Holy Spirit of God uniting us to the Word of God who is Jesus Christ.

Good words of challenge from Church Dogmatics §16.2.

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