Context is huge. For those of us living in the West, our context is a highly individualistic culture focused on languages of rights and freedom. In such a context, how will language of divine sovereignty, omnipotence, and omniscience be perceived? Will the Gospel message be understood as an offer of freedom and life, or will it instead seem restrictive? The first half of Ron Highfield’s book God, Freedom & Human Dignity: Embracing a God-Centered Identity in a Me-Centered World explores how a view of the human person as individualistic, autonomous and self-determining developed in the West, weaving literature, philosophy, and theological voices into his description. In the second half of his book, he moves from the modern view of human beings to a biblical view of God, humanity, and the relationship between the two.
Highfield explains that his own desire to explore this topic came from interactions with undergraduate students and others who perceived God as a possible or outright threat to their freedom and dignity. He diagnoses this as a case of distorted, competitive views of God and humanity. Rather than simply dismiss the various responses to God such views engender—defiance, subservience, or indifference—the author explores the logic and outcome of such stances. Modernity views identity as created by free will not relationships, and rejects overarching, external standards in favor of internal, self-devised standards. So individual freedom is understood as power and control of one’s own life. This is why God’s sovereignty seems to be in competition with human freedom.
Highfield re-defines and re-orients issues of freedom, human dignity, and the nature of God from a trinitarian perspective. In other words, he does not argue that a Christian must renounce a desire for freedom and dignity, but that these must be redefined in light of the Christ event and what we know of God’s Triune life. Instead of a God of raw power, the Bible reveals a God who is eternally self-giving love, who creates, sustains and redeems out of that love. In God’s freely chosen love we find dignity; in being released from sin and given the Spirit’s power to live as God’s children that we receive true freedom. The most secure and wonderful identity we can imagine is found in being adopted as God’s children.
One obvious strength of the book are the sources incorporated, including various fields, eras, and branches of the Christian tradition. Nietzsche, Kant, Augustine, Milton’s Paradise Lost, Greek mythology, Charles Taylor and Kierkegaard appear, along with many others. The text includes footnotes and two detailed indices for those who want to pursue an issue in more depth. Along with philosophical and theological students, this text could also be useful to Christian counselors and psychologists helping clients think through issues of identity. Highfield does a fine job of engaging modern Western views, instead of merely dismissing them as wrong-headed. He roots his own counter-argument particularly in the Incarnation and Trinity, which allows him to demonstrate how humanity is not competing against God.
While his use of the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation are particularly compelling, there is a downside to this focus: he makes very little use of the Hebrew Scriptures in his argument. Also, majority world voices are lacking. This is likely because Highfield focuses on the Western context, but integration of non-Western voices could have provided alternate ways of construing personal identity than the individualistic, autonomous model the West employs. Finally, despite his claim to move from an individualistic to a God-centered view of identity, Highfield ends on a note which betrays lingering evidences of individualism in his own mind. In discussing love of God, which leads to love of neighbor, there is somehow no mention of the koinonia of the church. This, too, is a vital, requisite part of Christian identity: not just the individual having fellowship with God and loving neighbor, but being integrated into the fellowship of those who represent Christ.
In conclusion, this book is a fine resource. It offers a comprehensive overview, interaction with various sources, and solid theological engagement, all in compelling and smooth prose. As the flaws are minor, the book definitely deserves five stars.
Thank you to IVP Academic for providing the review copy.