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Systematische Theologie: Dogmatik


Dalferth, Ingolf U.


Creatures of Possibility. The Theological Basis of Human Freedom.


Grand Rapids: Baker Academic Press 2016. 240 S. Geb. US$ 32,00. ISBN 978-0-8010-9810-9.


Markus Mühling

This is the English version of Ingolf U. Dalferth’s German book Umsonst (gratis, 2011), translated by Jo Bennett. It consists of sever-al chapters that were originally essays. Nevertheless, it has an overall coherence, and can be understood as an important contribution to Christian anthropology. Its central theme is providing a counterbalance to the philosophically and theologically common, but highly problematic, opinion that humans are deficient beings, by stressing that faith let humans perceive themselves and the world as creatures. Therefore, they perceive their being as a gift of grace, and consequently in light of this gift they must decide how to behave. The different possibilities for response – a thankful ac-knowledgment, a lamenting acknowledgment, denial, being in­different – are not possible without the gift of divine self-disclosure, and the disclosure of self and world as creatures in faith that are reconciled and destined to a future of possibilities. The traditional notion of the imago dei cannot be used in order to distinguish humans from other creatures, but is a matter of the relationship between God and his humans, by which they as images of God are constantly in becoming, constituted by an active passivity, i. e. they receive possibilities in pure passivity in order to respond ac-tively in many possible ways. Therefore, humans are creatures of possibility. The book gives insight into D.’s mature thought, and it also presents some results gained from discussion with his pupils. The seven chapters reflect on this theme from different perspectives.
Whereas chapter 1 introduces the theme, chapter 2 unfolds the material theme through a reflection on the epistemological background by illuminating the difference and relatedness of faith and reason. D. leads by quoting Luther’s famous definition of human being as homo iustificari fide – which is principally a narrative definition – as a heading for the material sections. Chapter 3 explains Luther’s anthropology as a relational anthropology of becoming, and distinguishes it from some of its common misunderstandings. Chapter 4 develops the theme in the face of two extremes: Derrida’s claim that any kind of gift and giving falls back into mercantile relationships, and Marion’s omnipresence of gifts as phenomena. He explicates a theology of giving, in which the passively received gift comes from an excess that creates an excess of gifts. Received in faith, they do not satisfy any needs, since without faith no one would know what one was missing. Here, gift and giving are with-out any practical economic (in its modern, deficient sense) use, and therefore situated in a relationship of real love. Chapter 5 is an excellent treatment of the ideas of sacrifice and victim. Many contemporary objections, including sophisticated ones like Derrida’s, only treat this theme within a framework of relationships of power and violence, with the consequence that they are unable to con-ceive of surrender within the framework of love. Sacrifice in a Chris-tian sense means that one, and pre-eminently Christ, is faithful in loving the other, even in those circumstances that, as a side-effect, lead to one’s own death. Therefore, the sacrifice is not an inten-tional action, but a passion. In a similar way, ch. 6 treats objections against the idea of the incarnation and philosophical reinterpretations of incarnation that remain in the realm of the general (such as Blumenberg’s). Here D. presents in nuce his doctrine of the atonement, since incarnation and resurrection must first be seen as two sides of the same coin, and second, they have to be understood as the incarnation of the second person of the Trinity in the concrete, particular story of Jesus Christ. This is the frame of reference for determining what it means to be human and to be divine, not the other way around. Chapter 7 explains the main thesis of human becoming’s creative passivity in the face of Nietzsche’s claim that man has to transcend humanity individually by one’s own active power, and its contemporary popularization in post- and trans-humanist fantasies.
This book can be read in many ways. One way is to conceive of it as higher-order-apologetics. Sometimes, it seems that the starting points are frequently rejections of theological claims by modern or post-modern thinkers. However, D. never choses weak positions, and he is able to acknowledge the particular veri of these adver-saries. In most cases – and this is why I called it a higher-order-apology – he unmasks the typical theistic apologetics as flattening or distorting a genuine theological concern. His outline of an anthropology shows that Christian thinking can resonate fruitfully with present anthropological thinking, such as recent tendencies in biological anthropology that see humans as ecological beings or social anthropology that speak of human becomings instead of human beings. The reader who is acquainted with D.’s works will hardly be surprised, but, as elsewhere, many arguments are short and with-out any simplification. However, at the same time, the book is ex­cellently readable, and I can imagine that academic courses might be designed around it in future.
I only want to raise a few minor questions: At the beginning, D. sees the distinction between human and non-human animals in the fact that only humans have learned to adapt their environment to themselves whereas other animals have to adapt to their en-vironments (2). However, recent developments in evolutionary biol-ogy have challenged this view and conceive humans as being in more continuity with their fellow-animals by identifying niche-constructing abilities in non-humans as well. D. is not referring here to the latest developments, and he draws a distinction, apparently as given, that he would later see correctly is not theological, but empirical. Later on, he continues to speak of human beings in a distinctive way. In order to avoid attracting superficial critiques of speciesism, would it not be better to speak of persons and not humans in regard to the ability to respond to the gift of freedom?
In order to relate and to distinguish science and faith, D. distinguishes questions of explanation from questions of orientation. He speaks of ›orientation strategies‹, by which he does not mean something ›given‹, but something ›wrested‹, which have two purposes: ordering the world for us and enabling us to find our place in an ordered world (22). Faith, described as an ordering structure, seems to be a very active, cognitive, and predicative endeavour, not as clearly distinguished from the explanation of the sciences as D. wishes. Here, faith seems to me to be far removed from the mode of the mediated immediateness of perception that faith really is. And how is this interpretative, wresting activity to be related to the mere passivity of the constitution of faith, in which even to accept the gift of faith is not an action (54)?
A final question concerns the way that D. depicts the adverbial distinction between homo vetus and homo novus, with the help of the distinction between doing something ›in faith‹ or ›in unfaith‹. Of course, it is modelled analogically on acting rationally or irrationally, but when he says that the state of unfaith is one ›in which every human being lives initially‹, (27) the question arises as to what ›initially‹ means: is it a denial of any fides infantium? Has he taken the Flacinian bait by making unfaith the natural (instead of fallen) state of humans? Would it not be better to avoid questions like these by replacing the distinction between faith and unfaith with the one between faith and idolatry?
Nevertheless, addressing questions like these is a sign of a theol-ogy that enables discourse, and therefore they are not an evidence of vice. This is an excellent small book that has the virtue of com-bining the academic dimension and the existential dimension of piety in an extraordinary way.