Towards the back end of her Systematic Theology, Katherine Sonderegger attempts to work out a coherent doctrine of divine freedom within her doctrine of God. Her account of God is to a large degree set over against what she takes to be overly-trinitarian accounts: as should be well known at this point, her fundamental starting point is God’s oneness, as opposed to God’s triunity. Much to modern theology’s chagrin, she also enthusiastically embraces substance as a legitimate category for describing God, and she also enthusiastically positions herself against Barth on a number of matters. What I want to do here is draw out what I think are some serious shortcomings over her view here and then see where Barth, something of a bête noire for Sonderegger, can offer a better way forward.
The twin axis on which Sonderegger’s doctrine of God turns is, more or less, identity and unity. God just is His nature on her account. This is God’s very substance, nature. God’s nature is not something he has, it is something he is. Identifying God with his nature for Sonderegger cashes out to saying that God is who he is, and who he is is one. It is this oneness that drives her to reject any kind of faculty psychology in God so far as exercising his will goes: indeed, Sonderegger rejects the very idea that God exercises or deliberates at all, or that God’s power even includes ‘doing what one wills’.While it is surely a good thing to reject any idea of God’s power or will resembling human willing or acting or deliberation, her solution gives me pause. Drawing on Schliermacher’s view of God as an integrated whole, Sonderegger, with her doctrine of divine identity firmly in hand, says that ‘…God cannot deny himself: He is Life, vital dynamism, and Light’, (p. 323). This in itself is not problematic – Barth would agree with this phrasing. The problems begin to emerge, however, when Sonderegger elaborates her conception of divine omnipotence:
Just this we seek in the doctrine of Divine Power: the expression of the Divine Aseity, the Living Fire, in Relation to the world, not as separate Act or Decree or executed Will, nor less as unrelenting Cause, but rather as ties, impartations to the world, distinct in their own way, yet One: One Relatio ad extra, One God. (p. 265)The omnipotent God is the Holy One. He speaks and the Word is realized without delay or interruption or support. This is direct creation, without intermediary, instrument, or deliberation. (p. 308)
His relations ad extra are His Nature and Person too; they just are the Lord, turned toward another. They too are governed by His own Necessity. He cannot cease to be God; the gracious invitation to creation to be must be extended by the Lord of Life. Because the One God is holy, His very Being radiates, outward immutably, throwing out into the utter darkness the light of creation itself (p. 323).
Freedom is of course more than the absence of limits restrictions or conditions. This is only it’s negative and to that extent improper aspect – improper to the extent that from this point of view it requires another, at least insofar as it’s freedom lies in its independent of this other. But freedom in its positive and proper qualities means to be grounded in one’s own being, to be determined to move by oneself. This is the freedom of the divine life in love. In this positive freedom of his, God is also unlimited, unrestricted and unconditioned from without. He is the free Creator, the free reconciler, the free Redeemer. But his divinity is not exhausted in the fact that in his Revelation it consists throughout this freedom from external compulsion: in free utterance and action, free beginning and ending, free judgment and blessing, free power and Spirit. On the contrary it is only manifests in all this. For he has it himself quite apart from his relation to another from whom he is free. (CD 2.1, p. 301)
The final sentence is, to my mind, something of an indictment against Sonderegger, who appears to secure God’s freedom by building in an ‘other’ from whom God can be free. Interestingly, Barth agrees with Aquinas that in God, nature and will are one: in fact, Barth goes so far as to deny a certain kind of freedom to God, the freedom to not be God. Both Aquinas and Barth are following an insight of Athanasius here, who argues by way of the Incarnation that will and nature are in complete accord in God (of course, the Incarnation, the Son, is not willed by God, but God’s nature doesn’t oppose his nature). It is crucial to note that it is Barth’s non-substantial, Trinitarian account that allows him to retain freedom without falling into emanation since God for Barth isn’t a substance which is compelled by nature to ‘do what it does’. The difficulty that Barth avoids can perhaps be best put like this: Sonderegger wants to secure a doctrine of God where divine freedom isn’t defined by various faculties but by God simply being God (and leading to necessary creation as we saw above). Barth, however can retain God’s independence and freedom by appealing to God’s inner life as Trinity: ‘We have seen that the freedom of God, as His freedom in Himself, His primary absoluteness, has its truth and reality in the inner Triune life of the Father with the son by the Holy Spirit.’ (p. 317)
Barth characteristically looks to the Incarnation for divine freedom, as Barth looks to the Incarnation for everything. In his own inner life, God has otherness, apart from and before any external creation by the fellowship of the Son and Spirit in the Godhead: and it is just this inner life that preserves the divine freedom. Since God already has in his own inner life full freedom, his creation, preservation and relationship with the world doesn’t come from any compulsion or necessity but rather by and through the Son. As God’s Triunity is both natural and willed, and as creation is by and through the Son, creation is free and yet natural, natural without any compulsion. And here lies the rub: Because for Barth God cannot not be God, and because of Barth’s insistence on God’s Triunity as a starting point for a doctrine of God as opposed to the oneness of God Sonderegger advocates, for Barth God being God equals God being Triune since God’s being Triune is both a work of nature and will since, as we noted above, will and nature are one in God. God is God, and for God to be God is for God to be free: God’s nature = God’s freedom, and since God is triune by nature, then for God to be free is for God to be triune.