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Couenhoven on divine and human freedom in Barth

I mentioned a few weeks back now that I have been reading Commanding Grace, an edited collection of papers from the 2008 US Karl Barth conference. In my last, brief, post I hinted that the collection is really good, and that I was unearthing some absolute gems. The variety of subjects and the level of concrete engagement with Barth on issues of central importance to Christian ethics is really encouraging and exciting. One particularly brilliant essay I have read and re-read is Jesse Couenhoven's Karl Barth's Conception(s) of Human and Divine Freedom(s) pp.239-255. The main concern of this essay, as the title suggests, is the question of how Barth's conception of divine freedom is related to his conception of human freedom, if at all. It is important to note that it is a conceptual problem that concerns Couenhoven here. He is not asking how divine freedom and human freedom actually relate, not primarily at least, but how Barth's conceptual exploration of each is related - it is an essay in hermeneutics. Does human freedom differ in kind from divine freedom, or are they in some sense analogous? Couenhoven thinks Barth argues for analogy, referencing Church Dogmatics III/2: 193-5, III/3: 188-9. Nonetheless, the question is important since Barth is much clearer on the subject of human freedom than he is on divine freedom, on the whole, so understanding how the two relate gives us greater clarity when attempting to understand what Barth means by divine freedom. If there is an analogy between human and divine freedom then one can speak kataphatically about divine freedom, but if not the one is required to speak apophatically.

Couenhoven's mission is to bring some conceptual clarity to Barth who does not show "any interest in what he may have considered the philosophical task of expounding theories and definitions of freedom" (p.240). By giving "hermeneutical priority" to human freedom in Barth's thought, and introducing some philosophical concepts that will help locate Barth's account of freedom in some conceptual matrix, Couenhoven attepts to offer clarity of Barth on divine freedom by way of Barth on human freedom. The two main notions Couenhoven introduces to his discussion in order to do this are compatibilist and incompatibilist accounts of freedom. 

The incompatibilist account of freedom, i.e. the notion that the free agent is the absolute ground of her own being and doing so much so that she chooses between alternate possibilities without any determining factors, is rejected as an inadequate summary of Barth's understanding of human freedom (p.245). But Couenhoven notes that the revisionist school of Barth studies, headed by key theologians such as Bruce McCormack, operate with an incompatibilist account of divine freedom that suggests God is so free that he is not determined by His being, but rather His being is determined by His choice to be God for us. The revisionist school implicitly denies any analogy between divine and human freedom, since the latter is not free of all determining factors as the former is. Human freedom could only be analogous to divine freedom in the model if the analogy is with divine freedom after the self-determining choice to have a particular essence and nature. But is this divine freedom at all? Regardless, it leaves us with the question of the relationship between the pre-determined will and the actual determined being of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and how to solve the issue of the ongoing freedom of the Trinity.

Barth's account of human freedom is essentially compatibilist, and Couenhoven makes this point clearly: "Barth has at his disposal a compatibilist understanding of the terms...[that] can be used to provide another reading of his understanding of divine freedom" (p.246). The compatibilist view is basically eudaimonian, i.e. that human beings are liberated by God for the life that if properly theirs. In this way it rejects the self-making idea that is key to the revisionists account of divine freedom, and seems to argue instead that freedom is about the fulfilment of one's calling by God. Regarding divine freedom, the point is that freedom here is not dependent upon being the source of one's essence but upon living in fulfilment of it (p.250). It is plausible to read Barth on divine freedom in the same way, and in so doing to miss the pitfalls of the incompatibilist view: "Barth never says that God chooses triune being in love as a choice among others" (p.252). A compatibilist account of divine freedom suggests "a primal and eternal self-affirming decision that is shaped by and congruent with who God is" (p.253).

Couenhoven's point is that God doesn't need to have alternative possibilities posited in eternity in order for us to properly acclaim that He is free. Divine freedom is about the fulfilment and affirmation of one's being in the exercise of choice. Freedom in this sense is a power, and for the human creature too freedom is a powerful gift that must be exercised in the same way. Properly understood, we are free as God is free only in recognizing our creatureliness before Him, and fulfilling it.


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