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Divine and Human Action: Seeking a Non-Competitive Account

In recent accounts of ecclesiology and ethics, certain thinkers, seeking to give due weight to the priority of divine action over the church’s response have argued that a properly theo-centric account of the church’s practices must see them merely as secondary response to God’s word – never are they seen as a participation in it. John Webster, for example is concerned to safeguard “the sheer gratuity of God’s act of reconciliation.” He sees a great danger in speaking of the church as an embodied locus of practices. Such descriptions, he argues risk a “potential moral immanence” which Webster sees as an inherent danger to “the language of practice”. Webster is reticent to acknowledge any “coinherence of the divine work of reconciliation and the church’s moral action.” For Webster, “there is an unbridgeable gulf between the reconciling activity of God and the church’s moral endeavor.” Indeed, Webster goes so far as to say that the church can “never embody” God’s redeeming word of reconciliation in its midst.

Similarly, David Fergusson has attempted to articulate an approach to ethics that argues that “the priority of God’s action must be stressed over against the secondary reality of the church’s polis.” On his view, the church’s action at best “bears the character of faithful witness and correspondence” in relation to the divine act.

What is inherent in the views of both Webster and Fergusson is a conception of divine action that is inherently competitive. This is the crucial point. For such thinkers, divine action, in order to take primacy cannot include and incorporate the church’s ecclesial response to God’s Word into the movement of it. Were it to so do, the church would in some way be responsible for God’s saving action, which is untenable. However, then the question becomes what place there is left at all for human action, given the competitive and all-encompassing nature of divine action. Does not such a view of divine action inevitably end up overwhelming any meaningful concept of creaturely freedom and action? Can such an approach, which seems to always stop with the assertion that God’s action is primary truly fund a fully orbed Christian ethic? The main point I would press against such thinkers is that despite their luadable efforts to make domatically clear that God’s action is primary in any discussion of theological ethics, if ethical reflection stops at that point we have failed in following through the task of really doing ethics. Pelagianism must indeed be forewsworn, but antinomianism is no less a danger. Any ethic that merely speaks of God’s divine action extra nos and refuses to plumb the depths of how that action bears on, shapes, and incorporates the ongoing life of the church in seeking to follow Jesus is unforgivably deficient. This is my fear with works like Webster’s on ethics. Frankly, there just isn’t much ethics there!

What is needed, I would contend is a more thoroughly trinitarian account of divine action, based on the mode of God’s self-giving in the economy of salvation as seen in Christ and the Spirit. Stephen Holmes has helpfully pointed out that “The particular ways in which God has chosen to be present to the world as Son and Spirit are ways which, in God’s sovereignty, do not overwhelm the world…these ‘kenotic’, or perhaps better ‘self-limiting’, modes of presence do not threaten his existence as God.” It is precisely in this direction that I think theological discussions of this issue must go. What is needed is a distinctly non-competitive account of divine action that is grounded in the kenotic life of the Trinity. Here, I think von Balthasar helps us in ways that Barth does not. On such an account we are able to avoid both “moral immanence” and an abstract transcendence. When we see divine action in such a non-competitive manner, we realize that discussions about God’s action extra nos and our form of ethical praxis must occur in the same breath. Then and only then can we really follow through on Barth’s contention that dogmatics is ethics.


  1. Anonymous wrote:


    Thanks for the always informative, thought-provoking blog.

    Do you have a good place to start with von Balthasar on this topic (I’m a very interested von Balthasar novice, but have no idea where to start with his work – all I have read thus far are his essays with Ratzinger on Mariology)?


    Thursday, March 29, 2007 at 2:50 pm | Permalink
  2. Shane wrote:

    I too found this post interesting, though I wonder if Webster would accept that he has a competitive account of divine/human interrelations.


    p.s. I don’t know who the person who posted before me is, but it’s nice to meet a namesake.

    Thursday, March 29, 2007 at 5:02 pm | Permalink
  3. a. steward wrote:

    Halden, I feel much the same. It seems that the unwillingness to associate the word of God with the word of the Church stems from a legitimate desire to avoid conflating the two, to avoid any sort of ex cathedra idea that wherever we hear the word of the church, there we hear the word of God. But this can’t keep us from realizing that we never hear the word of God that is not “spoken through the mouth of our sister.” Sure, the word of God does not originate with the church, but it is read and proclaimed by the church. There needs to be room for talk of God’s actual Grace impeding on our actual world.

    Good words:
    “Any ethic that merely speaks of God’s divine action extra nos and refuses to plumb the depths of how that action bears on, shapes, and incorporates the ongoing life of the church in seeking to follow Jesus is unforgivably deficient.”

    Thursday, March 29, 2007 at 5:09 pm | Permalink
  4. Halden wrote:

    Shane (1),

    For Balthasar, I would recommend Love Alone is Credible to start out. It’s a small book that really encapsulates his thought well. Also you’ll get a little bit of an intro if you click on the ‘Hans Urs von Balthasar’ tag on my posts. There are a handful, including a variety of quotes.

    Shane (2),

    I’m sure Webster would deny that he has such an account operating. However, he’s so terrified of pelagianism, and safeguarding the primacy of divine action, that whether he wants to or not, I think just such a competitive account is what ends up operating in his theology. On this matter, I’m actually much more with Aquinas, which I’m sure will make you happy, and make David think I’m pelagian! :)


    There needs to be room for talk of God’s actual Grace impeding on our actual world.

    Well put indeed! That’s what I find lacking so often in many of the “theologians of grace.”

    Thursday, March 29, 2007 at 5:45 pm | Permalink

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