The Necessarily Trinitarian Shape of Divine Freedom: or, How It is Impossible to Preserve Freedom in a Doctrine of God Unless Trinity is Priority

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)
Clearly this is not a faculty-dependent power: God does not choose and execute, but imparts via his relations to the world, his relations ad extra. This already begins to tilt towards emanation: Sonderegger notes as much: ‘The language and conceptuality I have used here in the doctrine of Omnipotence sounds dangerously close to a “natural” and inevitable emanation…that appears necessary, not free, substantial and not voluntary’, (p. 309). Her concern here is not unwarranted. Sonderegger attempts to preserve a kind of freedom for God by grounding said freedom in God’s identity:
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).
The troubling term here is necessity. There are, of course, plenty of ways of understanding the concept of necessity: logical, metaphysical, nomological. Sonderegger attempts to preserve both freedom and necessity here by grounding the above necessity in God’s identity: ‘…the necessity here is if the species of the personal: God necessarily is God’ (p. 323). The trouble appears when her identity statement is examined even in a cursory manner: for something to be something just is for it to be that something necessarily. So we can simply say that ‘God is God’, which is true, of course, but true because it’s a statement governed by the law of identity – the same semantics could be said of anything. My shoes are my shoes, my cat is my cat, and so on and so on. Simply declaring it personal doesn’t seem to accomplish too much. But if God’s ad extra relations are governed by this kind of necessity, then it is necessary for ‘God is God’ to be true that God creates: therefore, if God doesn’t create, God isn’t God. If God creates necessarily, then by Sonderegger’s logic, creation is necessary for God to be God. In spite of the best intentions, Sonderegger’s integrated whole looks suspiciously like The One of Plotinus. I maintain here that Sonderegger’s concept of God as substance, which enters into personal relations which are in turn governed by necessity, evacuates God of all meaningful freedom, and I think that the only way forward is to reject the substantial concept of God in play here and replace it with what Sonderegger is so ken to reject: a fundamentally Trinitarian concept of God.
Just such a concept of God is articulated and defended by Barth, whom Sonderegger is keen to take to task in her systematic.  Interestingly, Barth agrees that God cannot not be God, but for Barth this doesn’t entail any kind of emanation because God is fundamentally Triune. Barth is nothing if not an ardent defender of the freedom of God, and yet, he is able to articulate a kind of divine freedom that doesn’t end up looking like a powerful human, deliberating from among available options with various faculties of will while also avoiding the the kind of necessity we see in Sonderegger.
Barth expresses his concept of freedom in both positive and negative terms:

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.



5 thoughts on “The Necessarily Trinitarian Shape of Divine Freedom: or, How It is Impossible to Preserve Freedom in a Doctrine of God Unless Trinity is Priority

  1. cal March 22, 2017 / 9:32 pm

    How do you answer the accusation that Barth is quasi-Sabellian in rejecting “person” for “mode of being” to discuss the relation and reality of the Trinity “ad intra”? Is there literature that addresses this that’s online? I’m curious, because if Barth can’t properly articulate a doctrine of Trinity that does not border on some kind of sophisticated, triad-esque, unitarianism, then he’s not that far away from Sonderegger. She might border on a kind of crypto-Origenism, but Barth ends up like a Marcellus of Ancyra, which the Athanasians condemned both for similar reasons.


    • Joshua March 23, 2017 / 10:54 pm

      I’ve found Barth himself to be the best reading on that question, since he tackles those objections at length.


  2. Theolgian's Library March 30, 2017 / 1:17 pm

    I’ve got my copy of Sonderegger on the shelf but haven’t been able to get to it yet. Good stuff. Sounds like you are pretty much rejecting the thesis that underlies volume one?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Joshua March 30, 2017 / 9:01 pm

      I wouldn’t say I’m out and out rejecting it, but this appears to be a serious problem with her thesis.


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