Creatures of Possibility

The Theological Base of Human Freedom

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Ingolf U. Dalferth
Translator(s): 
Jo Bennett
  • Ada, MI: 
    Baker Academic
    , November
     2016.
     240 pages.
     $29.99.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780801098109.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Originally published in German in 2011, this translation of Ingolf Dalferth’s Creatures of Possibility by Jo Bennett brings a fresh and provocative perspective on human beings as creatures of passivity who are open to a future of possibilities. This work is comprised of a series of studies that argue for a new perspective on human beings as creatures of possibility by challenging the all-too-pervasive and prevalent view of humans as deficient beings needing to compensate for their deficiencies through technology, ethics, and even religion. Dalferth’s thesis is that humans are not to be defined by their deficiencies, whether biological, sociological, or religious; rather, humans must be defined theologically as creatures open to an indeterminate future of possibilities for which they can react positively in faith or negatively in unfaith. According to Dalferth, considering that humans are creatures of possibility they cannot control or predict which possibilities will come into their respective lives, but they can respond to these possibilities as opportunities to become truly human—or not. Moreover, humans can only react to these possibilities because they are created with a primal passivity, meaning they cannot control the possibilities that they encounter, only how they react to them.

This book consists of seven chapters in which Dalferth engages in both a philosophical and theological manner with various theologians and philosophers in order to demonstrate how and why humans are created with a primal passivity, and so open to future possibilities in which they have the potential to become true humans as created in the image of God. Chapter 1 introduces the general subject matter wherein Dalferth dismisses certain reductionist philosophical and biological renderings of humanity, proposing a more theological-existential paradigm of humanity as creative passivity from which humans can realize their true purpose by living life coram Deo (before God). Chapter 2 sees Dalferth delve deeper into the historical and contemporary issues and debates surrounding the various understandings of humanity as either a rational animal—Aristotle/classical Christian orthodoxy—or a highly evolved, wilful animal—Darwin/Nietzsche. Dalferth then posits a third understanding, between that of a robust rationalist view and a crass bio-volitional view, arguing for humanity as created in the image of God inasmuch as it lives before God in its creative passivity as open to future possibilities. Dalferth also draws upon the Protestant doctrine of the justification of the human by faith and Martin Luther’s concept of the human as “mere passive.”

Chapters 3 and 4 are an extended discussion on the concept of “gift,” with chapter 3 further extrapolating Luther’s understanding of the human as “mere passive,” and wholly recipient of their creature-hood and justification from God. Chapter 4 sees Dalferth engage with the respective postmodern philosophies of gift—seen in the writings of Jacques Derrida and Jean-Luc Marion—with Dalferth charting a middle way between the two and arguing for faith as the divine gift that enables humans to live before God in their creative passivity. In chapter 5, Dalferth tackles the perennially problematic issue of “sacrifice,” especially in its religious context. Rather than seeing (self-)sacrifice as either egotistical or altruistic, Dalferth argues that true sacrifice—in the context of Christian faith—is the unfortunate but inevitable end of the one who loves the other so unconditionally that the only possible outcome of such love is (self-)sacrifice to the point of death. Dalferth draws upon the narratives of the Akedah of Abraham and Isaac in Genesis 22, and the crucifixion of Jesus in Mark 15, to demonstrate that God keeps his promises even when all hope seems and is lost. Chapter 6 offers Dalferth’s contention that, in the incarnation of God in Jesus of Nazareth, it was revealed not that there is/was a deficiency in God and/or humanity, but the excess of love that God expresses toward humanity. Chapter 7 concludes with Dalferth arguing for the creative passivity of humans before God. Dalferth does not point to the biological origins of humanity as postulated in Darwinian evolutionary theory, nor to the angst-driven will-to-power of Nietzsche’s nihilistic philosophy, but to the fact that humans should orientate themselves toward the God who makes himself present in the world, even though he is only seen by those who live by faith. Dalferth concludes that humans only and truly become created beings as they respond in faith to the many possibilities that God puts in their lives enabling them to become the image of God.

This book is a work of intriguing philosophical and theological argumentation that attempts to overturn both the classical philosophical and theological understandings of the human being as a rational animal, and the modern understanding of the human as either a highly evolved animal and/or anxiety-induced, indeterminate wilful animal. Dalferth rightly replaces these reductionist accounts of the human with a more theologically holistic and innovative rendering of the human being as a creature of possibility that avoids the excesses of both classical and modern views of anthropology. Dalferth’s prose is lucid and precise and his theological acumen is exemplary. He summarizes his interlocutor’s arguments well and then exposes them as ultimately insufficient for and incompatible with the perspective of the human from the standpoint of Christian faith. I am grateful for Dalferth’s retrieval of the human from purely secular paradigms—whether philosophical or biological—and resituating the doctrine of humanity within the realm of the doctrine of God. Where I am slightly disappointed with this work is seen in Dalferth’s relative neglect of hamartiology and christology. Although sin and Jesus Christ are mentioned and employed sporadically throughout the text, they play a more functional—rather than determinative—role in his theological anthropology. Also, and at times, Dalferth’s argument is more of a philosophy of religion than it is a systematic theology; and although this is somewhat refreshing, it can also be a distraction and frustration.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Bradley M. Penner is adjunct professor of theology at Briarcrest College and Seminary.

Date of Review: 
June 13, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Ingolf U. Dalferth (DrTheol, University of Tübingen) is Danforth Professor of Philosophy of Religion at Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, California. He is also professor emeritus in the faculty of theology at the University of Zurich, where he served as director of the Institute of Hermeneutics and Philosophy of Religion for many years. He has held academic positions at the universities of Durham, Tübingen, Frankfurt, Fribourg, and Copenhagen. Dalferth is the author or editor of over forty books, including Crucified and Resurrected: Restructuring the Grammar of Christology, Die Wirklichkeit des Möglichen: Hermeneutische Religionsphilosophie, and Becoming Present: An Inquiry into the Christian Sense of the Presence of God.

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