Creaturely Calling

Common to our evangelical vernacular is the language of call. We talk about what vocation God is calling us to or how we feel called to act in a certain way frequently. It’s just become a part of the shared conventions of our speech.

For a few years now I’ve been uncomfortable with that kind of language, because it seems to rely on a subjective inner experience of leading paired with a sort of ‘confirmation bias’ approach to interpreting circumstances, rather than on the objective revelation of God’s will in Scripture.

The question, by the way, isn’t whether or not the language of calling is legitimate; it’s what calling language refers to in the Scripture, and how we experience a sense of call (whatever it refers to) in our lives. Generally, though not always, the Scripture speaks of calling in terms of salvation, where we speak of it in terms of vocation.

So John Webster, as usually, has been so helpful in this point. In a Q&A session after a lecture he gave a few years ago at Covenant College, he said this: “God has already given me the shape of my life—that’s my calling. I don’t have to invent that for myself. I don’t have to make myself out of nothing, because God has already given me who I am. And so, what I have to do is enact the person that I’ve already been created to be. So that what I’m responsible for is the fulfilling of the calling that God has given me. I’m not responsible, however, to sort of generate the call out of my own resources, and to think that I must make myself. And that, it seems to me, is a very freeing thing, because it means I’m not in the business of inventing myself, which is a desperately hard and troubling business, to have to be your own creator. And it’s not very humane, to think of ourselves in those ways… God has graciously given us the gift of ourselves.”

In other words, Webster locates vocational calling within the context of creation, not revelation. God does not call us to certain vocations by hiding clues in our circumstances, or whispering in our hearts; he calls us to do what we do by creating within us certain creaturely capacities, and giving us the desire and the will to pursue the enactment of those capacities. He gives gifts, and the creaturely means to use those gifts. To discern your calling, therefore, is not to embark on a process of investigation or discovery, but to act in accordance with your (sanctified) nature.

I agree with John Webster, that this seems to be a freeing thing. I talk to a lot of young people who are trying to figure out what they should do, and it seems that they have some grasp of what they enjoy and are good at, but they think those realities have no bearing on their calling. So they try hard to pierce the dark veil of God’s secret will for their lives, guilting themselves into reading the Bible to look for that one ray of insight into the divine plan. Bleagh. I prefer Webster’s view of God (which is to say, the Scripture’s view of God): The God who, loving us and pouring out grace on us, bestows us with life in the giving us the gift of ourselves.

Systematic Surrender

John Webster on Barth in “From the Substance to the Word:”

[R]evelation is no more and no less than the life of God himself turned to us, the Word of God coming to us by the Holy Spirit, Jesus Christ.’  Such a divine approach cannot be formalised into a set of axioms, and to attempt to do so (by, for example, developing a systematic biblical theology) is to take up a false stance to divine revelation, treating it as ‘a presupposition [Voraussetzung] which we can control.’  Properly undertaken, biblical theology effects no such settlement; it is simply ‘a series of attempted approximations, a collection of individual exegeses’.  What is required of the exegete is not systematic ambition but ‘surrender’.

Lord of the Word

I found this paragraph to be strikingly beautiful in John Webster’s Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch (Current Issues in Theology):

Second, as God’s free self-presentation, revelation is a free work of sovereign mercy. God’s revelation is God’s spiritual presence: God is the personal subject of the act of revelation, and therefore revelation can in no way be commodified. God is – as Gèrard Siegwalt puts it – revelation’s ‘uncontainable content’. As spiritual presence, the presence of God is free: it is not called forth by any reality other than itself; it is majestically spontaneous and uncaused. Its origin, actualisation and accomplishment require nothing beyond God. Like the entire history of the divine mercy of which it is a part, revelation is unexpected, undeserved, possible only as and because God is, and present after the manner of God. In Barth’s curious phrase, ‘God is the Lord in the wording of his Word.’

Scripture is where we meet God in all the freedom of his self-revealing Lordship.