Freedom and Necessity in Modern Trinitarian Theology

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Brandon Gallaher
Oxford Theology and Religion Monographs
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , November
     2016.
     320 pages.
     $120.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780198744603.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Central to the problematic explicated in this meticulous monograph by Brandon Gallaher is the mystery of how God has somehow always been "freely captivated" by creation due to his eternal desire to be in union with us through Christ. Gallaher endeavors to constructively and critically discuss how Sergei Bulgakov, Karl Barth, and Hans Urs von Balthasar each share this common problematic in their theology. Gallaher wants to provide a "key"to the Triune God's "reasonableness" with respect to freedom and necessity, taking us further and deeper down the "path of the question."

Gallaher sets out by establishing three forms—or levels—of freedom and necessity along an axis that he then utilizes to trace and analyze the thought of each theologian. He labels these forms F1, F2, F3, and N1, N2, N3. F1 is the freedom of mere self-will that is groundless or without reason (ratio), while F2 is freedom that does have ratio. When F1 is applied to Divine Freedom, it distinguishes God from the world and all other beings as undetermined, uncompelled, and unconstrained. Insofar as this kind of freedom constitutes the nature of God however, Gallaher notes how it can "far too easily be divorced from love, which is itself a reason for an act of will" (15). F2, by comparison, assumes that there always exists a cause for God's action. God however, is in fact characterized by both F1 and F2. In a sense, God both necessarily and freely wills his own goodness. Lastly, F3 connotes God's self-limitation, a "curbing of F1-F2" Gallaher calls it "by freely entering into relation and even putting itself in need to another" (19). Clarifying this idea of "dependent freedom" is a chief aim of the book.

One the side of necessity [N1-N3], N1 stands for external compulsion, while N2 is internal compulsion, namely—compulsion by one's own nature, rather than exerted by the force of an outside power. Finally, N3 is "free dependence" as opposed to dependent freedom (F3). These different types of freedom and necessity, for Gallaher, are intended not only to summarize the conceptions of both created and uncreated freedom and necessity in God and the world, but also to "evoke the divine life of love-desire or Absolute freedom . . . generated by the perfect tension between F1-3 and N1-3" (22). Such a tension is one in which "all the elements of immanent-transcendent divine process . . . exist within an eternal and completely fulfilled synthesis" (22). And, if N1-N2 implies a bondage of the will, whether external or internal, N3 involves a willing acceptance of that bondage to another "so that the will cannot but be for another" by "its own complete self-giving" (36). In sum, and following the insight of Paul Fiddes, Gallaher ascribes N3 to God—God is "freely captive" to us—but always in dialectic relationship with F3 (dependent freedom), and not collapsing the one side into the other.

Having thus created his own compass of sorts to guide the rest of the study, Gallaher then begins with Bulgakov by way of first tracing his indebtedness to and critique of Vladimir Solov'ev, as well as outlining his "sophiological antinomism"—an understanding of God's Spirit and essence as somehow neither divine nor creaturely—but both. Bulgakov speaks of God as both "Absolute" and "Absolute-relative" (vis-a-vis creation). As Absolute Freedom, creation exerts no necessity at all upon God, external or internal (N1-N2. As Absolute-Relative, however, the economic Trinity in Bulgakov's system makes God out to freely need the world (N3), at least in the abstract. Ultimately, though, Gallaher judges that Bulgakov's Trinity stands on a hierarchy with no analogue in the world, and charges him with a kind of ontological modalism or monism, leading to "love determinism" or "creeping pantheism" (230). These are strong words from Gallaher, to be sure, which some may deem overstated. Indeed, Balgakov receives the most critical assessment of the three as well as the most scrupulous.

Proceeding to Barth, like both Bulgakov and Balthasar, Gallaher notes how Barth understands God to have both freely and yet irrevocably elected to be God for us in Jesus Christ (F3-N3). Moreover, Barth is able to avoid the antinomism of Bulgakov by way of what Gallaher refers to as his christological specificity and historization of the doctrine of God, thereby balancing dependent freedom (F3) with an equal, primordial, and free dependence (N3). The problem with Barth comes into view in what Gallaher identifies as his tacit voluntarism, which, though not God's will, leaves open God's freedom to unbind himself from the world, if desired. A dialectical trajectory by itself, therefore, is insufficient in Gallaher's view; and it is only by an approach that is both dialectical and analogical—as taken by Balthasar—that the basic similarity, as well as difference between the uncreated God and created world, are held up together.

Balthasar is introduced by Gallaher—via a discussion of his "metaphysics of love"—before he outlines Balthasar's distinction between infinite and finite freedom in conversation with both Thomistic and Heideggerian ontology. Balthasar does not collapse F3 into N3, or identify divine with creaturely being, which Gallaher accuses Bulgakov of, and neither does Balthasar insert a chasm with no analogy between Creator and creature, as Barth does. Balthasar is able to do this because of his conception of Christ as "the concrete analogy of being." Gallaher qualifies however, that Balthasar only avoids these mistakes because he is, in some measure, standing on the shoulders of the other two. And even Balthasar, according to Gallaher, is not without problems. Gallaher observes "an unacknowledged eternalization of the economic Trinity, in which Balthasar projects the Incarnation into God's very essence" and in doing has God absorbing history as always already accomplished (237).

Gallaher finally provides his own inconclusive conclusion, which he calls a "reasonable response" rather than a "rational solution." Gallaher is concerned about the question of how there can be any risk, or awaiting by God, if God knows the result of all acts before they are committed (159). His proposal is that God's self-limitation and kenosis be applied to God's knowledge hence, for Gallaher, God's self-binding occurs through "self-blinding" concern for  future events. This means that no positive response on the part of humanity to God's love is guaranteed. Gallaher's rethinking of God's foreknowledge might have been strengthened by an explication of his understanding of God's relationship to time and space. He acknowledges the value and need for such a discussion, but finds it beyond the scope of this work. All in all, Gallaher's weighty contribution deserves a more thorough review than can be offered here, but suffice it to say that the book is impressive in breadth as it is adept and highly commendable, if only for any of Gallaher's painstaking treatments of Bulgakov, Barth and von Balthasar's thought on so difficult and focal a subject.

About the Reviewer(s): 

William Walker, III, is associate pastor of Saint Peter's Church in Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina.

Date of Review: 
February 24, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Brandon Gallaher is Lecturer in Systematic and Comparative Theology at the University of Exeter.

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