Freedom and Necessity in Modern Trinitarian Theology

Written by Brandon Gallaher Reviewed By Phillip Hussey

“But in God relation to the creature is not a real relation, but only a relation of reason; whereas the relation of the creature to God is a real relation” (Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae Ia.45.3 ad 1.). So Aquinas comments on the relationship between God and creatures. It can be argued, quite appropriately I think, that Aquinas’s theological position is the cause of much consternation in modern theology. The question for the modern is this: Can God be God without, as the Nicene Creed puts it, being God for us? And it is this exact relationship—the relationship between God’s internal, triune being and Christology—which Brandon Gallaher seeks to explicate in his recent monograph. Gallaher, who situates himself squarely in the project of contemporary theology, analyzes this relationship through the interconnected lenses of freedom and necessity. Succinctly put: Does a free act of love bind one to another in such a way as to compel a necessity upon one’s own being?

To begin, Gallaher sets up the relationship between God’s internal love and freedom (God’s eternal tri-hypostatic love) and God’s economic movement (God’s being for us in Christ) in terms of a “problematic”: “an intellectual mystery to which we can respond conceptually but which, in contrast to a problem, defies application of technique, for any mystery makes a personal and spiritual claim upon us” (p. 5). Gallaher sketches the extent of the problematic, as well as various conceptual approaches to it, in the opening three chapters. After putting forth several options, Gallaher settles on a synthetic account of freedom and necessity. Heuristically, this is put in terms of “dependent freedom” and “free dependence,” wherein Gallaher defines “dependent freedom” as “the free will to love, ecstatically desire another, to be in need … [which] could have been otherwise” and “free dependence” as the action following the choice to be in need, which could not have been otherwise (p. 41). Following these conceptual prolegomena, Gallaher critically and constructively engages the problematic vis-à-vis God’s life ad intra and ad extra in dialogue with three modern theologians: Sergii Bulgakov (chs. 4–6), Karl Barth (chs. 7–8), and Hans Urs von Balthasar (chs. 9–11). For Gallaher, each of these theologians proves helpful in thinking through the relationship between God and the world and freedom and necessity insofar as this relationship contains both dialectical (à la Bulgakov and Barth) and analogical elements (à la Balthasar).

Although Gallaher offers detailed interpretations for each thinker, I believe the central tenets of his dialogue with Bulgakov, Barth, and Balthasar are best articulated as follows. Bulgakov provides the initial constructive impetus for Gallaher because in “the Absolute there already always exists all the eternal images of God in reference to the world that subsequently are expressed in His life as Absolute-Relative” (p. 113). These images, which are always Christologically ordered (e.g., Godmanhood, sacrifice), are pre-accomplished in God’s life of love-desire because “they are themes of God’s own divine world of loving self-giving as Trinity as both a dependent freedom and free dependence” (p. 113). According to Gallaher, this is all worked out in terms of the Son’s kenotic self-giving (immanently and economically), though it ultimately collapses into “one monistic divine reality that subsumes creation in a form of love determinism” (p. 229) as a result of Bulgakov’s sophiology. Karl Barth provides a corrective to Bulgakov’s understanding of God and creation with his Christological re-working of the doctrine of election: God “enowns” (a term from Heidegger) creation through “God in Christ eternally electing Himself as a man and man in Christ electing God as His God, which divine-human election … is then retrospectively identified with the primordial election proper to God” (p. 160). In Jesus Christ, to put it in terms of Gallaher’s problematic, God has freely and eternally determined to be God for us, which involves a self-emptying and self-binding to creation. However, dialectically considered, this need not have been because God is God without the world; yet, at the same time, one cannot imagine God without creation in Christ. This simply begs the question for Gallaher, never sufficiently and coherently moving beyond mere assertion. According to Gallaher, Bulgakov and Barth cannot maintain their Christological orientation as well as God’s independence from and commitment to creation without collapsing them all in the end (i.e., Bulgakov’s sophiological panentheism and Barth’s neo-Hegelian actualism). At this point, Christologically structured dialectics needs analogy, and, just so, Bulgakov and Barth need Balthasar. Gallaher therefore draws upon Balthasar’s “concrete analogy of being” in Jesus Christ in order to properly take account of God’s freedom from and freedom for creation. Here, the intra-trinitarian self-giving has both a similarity and ever-greater dissimilarity to the divine-human self-giving of the Son made flesh in particular and creaturely self-giving in general.

The monograph reaches its conclusion with Gallaher’s “unsystematic, systematic” proposal, which constructively builds upon his interlocutors. To the point, there are two divine elections: (1) the primordial intra-hypostatic election, which is a perfect union of freedom and necessity in God; and (2) the divine-human world oriented election “in which God eternally and freely gives Himself to man by electing Himself as man in Christ, wherein Christ, in turn, elects Himself in eternal response to the Father and this whole Triune self-sacrifice cannot be undone” (p. 238). The problematic of freedom and necessity is thus clarified by the fact that, after taking into account dialectical and analogical differences, “the choice made by Christ in history is identifiable with the choice made by the Son in the eternal life of the Trinity” (p. 239). The primordial act of election corresponds to a logical movement from necessity to freedom: God simply is God as a kenotic movement of necessary tri-hypostatic self-giving and free reciprocity. And divine-human election logically moves from freedom to necessity: God freely (and eternally) “binds Himself to creation in Christ through His own self-blinding—the self-binding is a self-blinding” (p. 241). This divine kenosis of knowledge is necessary, according to Gallaher, in order to create the space of divine-human freedom, namely the free election of man in Christ of God as His God. Such freedom is risky insofar as God (the Father?) does not know the outcome of this divine-human election in Christ. However, the Spirit, in resting on Christ, secures the outcome of this election by inspiring Christ to continue to the cross, and eventually draws creation up to the Father in the resurrection and ascension. Gallaher, following Balthasar, puts the matter somewhat cryptically: “In the Ascension of Christ through His Spirit in His return to the Father God, we can speak, retrospectively as well as retroactively, as a gift, of the surprising election of God by man in Christ as being His very own self-election as God” (p. 249). The ascension as to election has, it seems, surprising ontological consequences for God.

There is much to admire in Gallaher’s work, particularly in that it probes perceptively the depths of one of modern theology’s most vexing questions through detailed analysis of three of its most prolific thinkers. And Gallaher does so in an attempt to explore a central affirmation of the Christian confession: God in Christ is truly for us. Not only that, but he also directs us toward an altogether correct point: the Christological ordering of creation needs to be taken seriously and fleshed out with much cogency in our theological milieu. This is certainly commendable. But, nevertheless, I have reservations as to his clarification of the “problematic.” With Aquinas, I would argue it is theologically pertinent to construe God’s relationship to creatures as mixed. The movement from God in se and a se to God’s economic work is the proper ontological order, which if contorted, yields a hypertrophy of the for us. This, in turn, collapses the ground of God’s meaningful relationship with creatures, as well as the corresponding integrity of creatures. God can be for us only insofar as God is for us. Moreover, the for us is not meant to function as a control for the doctrine of God. Such thinking is strangely akin to Arianism. Only in Arianism the for us was located outside of creation to safeguard God, whereas much of modern theology locates the for us outside of creation to historicize God. This, to be sure, is a main concern for Gallaher, although in the end he does not seem to be able overcome the material problem. The problem is of course exacerbated by the fact that a synthesis of freedom and necessity is defined in the beginning and then used as the litmus test for later theological claims. Gallaher’s solution to the material problem is to employ a retroactive ontology of the ascension in order to consistently map the pre-determined synthesis of freedom and necessity onto a kenotic account of divine-human election as an expression of God’s triune kenosis. This clarification of the “problematic” is, for this reader, more problematic.

Phillip Hussey

Phillip Hussey
Saint Louis University
Saint Louis, Missouri, USA

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