Review of Ron Highfield’s “God, Freedom & Human Dignity: Embracing a God-Centered Identity in a Me-Centered Culture”

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 highfield_God, freedom, dignity cover 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.

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About Stephanie Lowery

I studied systematic theology at Wheaton College Graduate School, studying under Daniel Treier and writing my dissertation on ecclesiological models in Africa. I grew up in East Africa, and am happy to have returned at long last!
This entry was posted in Book reviews, Systematic Theology and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Review of Ron Highfield’s “God, Freedom & Human Dignity: Embracing a God-Centered Identity in a Me-Centered Culture”

  1. Pingback: Review of Ron Highfield’s “God, Freedom & Human Dignity: Embracing a God-Centered Identity in a Me-Centered Culture” | ChristianBookBarn.com

  2. Ron Highfield says:

    Thank you for reading and reviewing my book. Your review is very well written and breathes a spirit of fairness.

  3. I’m glad to hear you felt it fairly represented your book, which I definitely enjoyed reading. What are you working on next, if I may ask?

    • Ron Highfield says:

      Stephanie: I am working on a book on creation and providence as the next in the series I began with my book on the doctrine of God, Great is the Lord: Theology for the Praise of God (Eerdmans, 2008). I’ve been working on it 2 1/2 years already. I have felt for some time that many books on providence do not take adequate account of the doctrine of creation, and books on creation get stuck in the Bible (or theology) and science debates. I want to differentiate the God/creature relation clearly from the creature/creature relation. I don’t think it makes sense to understand divine providence as a totally different kind of relation to creation than the divine giving being, which is creation. May God bless you as you finish your dissertation.

  4. Ron Highfield says:

    Stephanie:

    I thought you might want to know that your comments about my omission of the doctrine of the church from my book had an influence on me. I am delivering a paper in two weeks in which I am taking the first steps toward developing a theology of identity. I admit that in this paper I do not pursue the role of the church in determining our identity, but in a footnote I do acknowledge that a thorough theology of identity must do this. Here is my footnote:

    “I’ve not forgotten the church. A full theology of identity would take into account the decisive role of the community of Christ in identity formation and in giving us an anticipatory experience of our true identity. As the Spirit of God calls together the people of God and brings them into communion with Christ a community is formed in which our true identity (as God’s image, children of God, and as God’s beloved) is acknowledged, celebrated and given practical application. In this community members are reminded of their eschatological identity and they relate to each other even now as who we shall be. Baptism imparts to each and all a new identity in Christ and the Lord’s Supper reminds us of who we are and strengthens our determination to live from and toward that identity. Identity as I have emphasized throughout this paper is a set of relationships, the most decisive of which are interpersonal. In communion with the church we experience those relationships at their best—at least that is what should happen. We live in communion with those who relate to us as worthy, useful and acceptable, who treat us as always and completely forgiven.”

  5. I’m glad I could be of help. Would you be willing to send me a copy of your paper when it’s completed? Identity and ecclesiology are particular interests of mine!

    • Ron Highfield says:

      I’d be happy to send the paper to you. It’s basically finished. But I will send you the version that I present on April 5 or 6 (in Nashville, TN). You might remind me after that date.

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