John Hare’s God’s Command, 5.2, "Three Pictures of Freedom"

Having discussed the theme of particularity and universality in God’s commands in the previous section, Hare now sets his sights on Barth’s account of human freedom. Barth emphasizes the sovereignty of God throughout his work and, in the case of human freedom, Barth does not make an exception. For Barth, God elects man and this means God determines what he will be. But Barth simultaneously affirms the reality of human freedom. This has led many readers of Barth to take him as affirming a paradox (or even a contradiction) at this point.

However, Hare does not understand Barth this way. Hare thinks that when we apply Barth’s own distinctions to his writing, we can see how the freedom of God and man harmonize in a logically consistent way. On some conceptions of freedom, the freedom of God and man are thought to antagonize one another. But Barth rejects this notion. The Barthian solution to this notorious issue is to make an ontological point. God is the creator of humanity. It is God who places within man all of his capacities and powers, and thus human freedom supervenes on God’s freedom. Man has genuine freedom so that grace is not irresistible, but that freedom is derivative. By electing us, God has determined what we will be in Christ, but “we have to acknowledge this, or determine ourselves in correspondence to this” (p. 158).

In sketching out Barth’s view of freedom, Hare offers three different pictures. First, he asks us to imagine a mediocre piano player playing along with a master. They play a piece that requires two people. The master’s rhythm and artistry provides a context in which the lesser player can extend his skills beyond what he would be able to do on his own. The master does not force cooperation; her partner could stop at any moment. Still, the partner’s execution of the piece depends on the master. Her playing empowers his, but he must correspond to her artistry for there to be harmony.

Hare thinks this picture helps illustrate two conceptions of freedom. There is mere freedom, which is the ability to choose between two alternatives. If we are offered the choice between the evil maxim and the good maxim, or the choice between self and duty, we will always choose the evil maxim, according to Kant. But true freedom is freedom to obey the good maxim. This feat can only be accomplished through divine grace, or when God empowers our abilities by inviting us to play along and correspond with him.

The second picture comes from Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard’s concern is to say how it is that human beings can love as God loves. To answer, Kierkegaard offers a picture of a lake which is fed by a spring deep below the surface. Kierkegaard asks us to think of ourselves as the lake and the spring as God. In the same way the lake depends on the spring for its existence and status as “living water,” so we too depend on God. The dependence includes the moral dimension. If we are able to keep God’s commands, it is only because, beneath the surface, we are fed by God’s power and love, given to us as God condescends to us. Our will can cooperate with God’s because as the paradigm of love, God enters history and makes intimate, life-giving connections with human beings.

The final picture comes by way of Barth’s view of prayer, specifically invocation. In invocation, we ask God to help us correspond to his divine command. However, this prayer can only be made with God’s help because of the bending inward of our will. If we are going to pray as we ought, we need God’s help. Hare finds echoes of Paul’s teaching of the Spirit’s intercessory role in prayer in this Barthian view. Thus, prayer is a dynamic and real interaction between God and man, where God is both the agent (the one who prays in the person of the Spirit) and the one who hears the prayer. But a real condition of this sort of prayer is the cooperation of man.

In the final part of this section, Hare retells the story of the Canaanite woman. In this story, Hare sees Barth’s model of human and divine cooperation realized. The opportunity of the woman to interact with Jesus only occurs because of his deliberate act of seeking her out. When the woman requests that Jesus heal her daughter, Jesus does not immediately respond. And when he finally does, his answer is negative; he will not heal her daughter. In these tense moments, Hare sees Jesus as peering into the soul of the woman in order to help her see the truth about himself, herself, and their relationship to one another. Though it may not seem this way on the surface, each response from Jesus is intentional and for the woman’s good. Humility and repentance are required to experience healing and that is what Jesus wants the woman to see. Jesus does not simply want the woman to outwardly acknowledge him as Lord. Rather, he wants to transform and heal the woman and this can only be done if the woman cooperates with Jesus, if she conforms to his will for her. Jesus wants the woman to see that his blessing only comes by way of complete divine freedom and grace, but he also wants her to submit to what he is doing in her soul. Her cooperation with the will of Jesus can only occur when Jesus comes to her, sees the condition of her soul, and lovingly provides the opportunity for her to participate in what he is doing.


The Water of Life Discourse between Jesus and the Samaritan Woman at the Well by Angelika Kauffmann, 17–18th century