For my last (rather delayed) post on Karl Barth’s doctrine of providence according to Darren Kennedy, I want to briefly address the way that heaven and, interestingly, the angels function in the whole structure. According to Kennedy, heaven and the angels are actually quite important to Barth’s providence. Why this would be the case might not be obvious at all to us, but once he explains it, the coherence is evident.
So, what do angels and heaven have to do with providence? Recall that in my last post on this I mentioned that Barth rejects the idea of miracles which violate natural order, but he understands the natural order in a broad way that allows for many things to take place which we might not be inclined to consider natural. This is where heaven and the angels come in. For Barth (and, basically, N. T. Wright of all people), the term “heaven” does not refer to the uncreated presence of God, but to the second sphere of creation, the other side from earth which is hidden from our perception. The angels belong to this created heavenly sphere, and thus strictly speaking are a part of natural creation. They are not properly supernatural, but simply belong to a different created habitat, the habitat of heaven rather than earth.
In his first brief explanation, Kennedy explains:
If God does not disrupt the causal nexus, how can one account for the specific ‘miracles’ in Scripture? Barth’s answer does not envision a violation of the causal nexus, but an expansion of it to include heaven. This explanation will help to clarify Barth’s interpretation of heaven and angels in III.3. While fully a part of the creation, heaven remains imperceptible to humanity. Nevertheless, as part of the cosmos, heavenly creatures can act and reveal in the earthly realm. Thus God directs angels—whose nature is to obey perfectly—to behave in ways that seem to disrupt creation, but violate no ontic laws of creation.1
So for Barth, then, there is nothing about miracles which necessarily violates the natural causal order. He does not overrule, bypass, undo, or contradict the “laws” by which He governs creation (since, after all, in double-agency they are His own doing, and He cannot contradict Himself). Instead, heaven and the angels are part of the natural, created world, and God from His presence in heaven sends the angels to do His will in ways which affect earthly realities. A blind man, for example, may receive sight not by earthly physical processes but by angelic action, which is nonetheless “natural” in the sense that angels are a part of the created order.
Thus Kennedy argues that the realm of heaven and the angels serve as a so-called “causal joint” in Barth’s theology of providence, the point where God’s action enters into the created world. Many theologians have traditionally had a very difficult time identifying this point, explaining how and where God’s providential action is effective in the natural world. Barth by no means overcomes the mystery altogether, which would be speculative and presumptuous, but he does point to this answer grounded in biblical stories and teachings.
To understand this better, we should see how Barth sees the difficulty in the relationship of the Wholly Other God to the created world. In his understanding, God only is able to act in our world through a particular created “midpoint,” the realm of heaven which He has made to dwell in and to unite with earth. Kennedy cites this from him:
Without this special place of God, and the distance therewith posited between Himself and man in his own place, there could obviously be no genuine intercourse between them. There could be no dialogue, but only a monologue on the part of God (or perhaps of man). There could be no drama, but either God or man could only live in isolation with no relationships to others or significance for them. If this is not the case; if the theme of Christian witness is neither the life of an isolated God nor isolated man, but the history enacted between them of isolation, estrangement, reconciliation and fellowship; and if this history is really enacted in our world, then this means that God as well as man has a distinctive sphere in this real world of ours.2
This is rather similar to N. T. Wright’s view, at least at the descriptive level, of heaven as “the control room for earth..the CEO’s office, the place from which instuctions are given.”3 Kennedy does not specify whether Barth thought God acts on the world through heaven only by the angels or also by other means, but in any case the point is a mediating realm between God and man’s world.
There are oddities to this account, though. For Barth, only God and humans are truly personal beings. Angels, although superficially similar to persons, are actually not. They have no free will (of any kind), and they are used by God similarly to simple tools. On this account, he also denies that demons are fallen angels, instead incorporating them into his doctrine of Nothingness (on which I have written here). If angels have no personal agency, then they cannot have sinned unless God caused them to do so, which of course is absurd. Thus demons are placed into their own category.
This last issue is odd, and I think compromises this apsect of Barth’s providential project on Biblical grounds. Could it be reworked without it? Perhaps. In any case, it is thought-provoking, and I think as a whole Barth’s doctrine of providence seems superior to the traditional Reformed formulations.
In my last post about D. M. Kennedy’s thesis on Karl Barth’s doctrine of providence, I overviewed the way Barth addressed the question of evil in the world and the divine will. God gives sin and evil space for existence in His opposition to it; His “No” to human evil defines it and gives it concrete existence as His enemy. Thus sin is included in God’s will negatively, as that which He hates and denies in order to love and create His positive will. In the end, through the Cross of Christ, all sin and evil have their intentions thwarted as their ends are subjected to the positive will of God in creation and reconciliation.
This account, as fun as it is, is not quite complete. To get the way all of this is supposed to work a little better, it is necessary to also understand Barth’s doctrine of double-agency, the way in which both God and the world act in everything which happens. For Barth, and many other theologians, it is necessary to affirm that God acts in all occurrences. Nothing happens in all of creation in which God is not actively doing something. Providence would not be providence, especially from a Reformed perspective, if not everything was in some way an act of God. So Barth would affirm, along with the Old Testament and many Christian thinkers, God’s omnicausality, His causing of all things which come to pass.
So what does Barth’s view of double-agency look like in his doctrine of providence? First, it must be seen that all events in all history are God’s act at least inasmuch as He creates and sustains all things. This applies on one level to mere matter, simple particles and such, as God chooses at every moment to cause their existence with their distinct natures and properties. Every quark and gluon, photon and graviton, “acts” out of its own nature under the conditions in which God has placed it, and God acts to give and sustain the nature and abilities of these particles. Thus for Barth “natural” processes or “laws” cannot be understood as some autonomous principle(s) which mechanistically force all things to work in a certain way, but rather they are simply the outplaying of the way God ever constitutes the elements and forces of nature.
Each day of creation marks the appearance of created beings with particular natures which serve the Creator’s intention. For example, light has a God given ‘nature’ corresponding to its function and purpose. Barth explains, ‘Giving it its nature, He sets it [light] with this nature in that antithesis [between God and darkness]’. This ‘nature’, however, is in relation to the living God. Acting naturally, it corresponds with its Creator:
…in its distinction from Himself He finds in it a correspondence (entsprechend) to the goodness of His creative will and acts. In this connexion only that can be called “good” which corresponds to God’s will and act as Creator, and for this reason and in this way in a positive relation to Himself’.…in its distinction from Himself He finds in it a correspondence (entsprechend) to the goodness of His creative will and acts. In this connexion only that can be called “good” which corresponds to God’s will and act as Creator, and for this reason and in this way in a positive relation to Himself’.
Barth goes on to contrast his view of the goodness of light in correspondence with the will and act of God to those who consider the ‘qualities and advantages of light’. In doing so, Barth sets his actualistic ontology and its stress on relationships in contrast with the traditional Aristotelian substantialism. Double-agency means that impersonal creatures ‘are’ in their natural existence precisely as God actively sustains them to be. Like Farrer, Barth suggests ‘two doings’, but only one meaning given by God, since the non-intelligent nature of light does not involve an intention from the side of the creature.
Barth accentuates the ‘limits’ (Grenzen) and ‘nature’ (Natur) of each creature. Every creature has a particular God-given nature allowing for varied praise and witness to its Creator. Thus the creation of plants signals the potential not for agency but for obedience nonetheless. Barth highlights the difference in the nature of plants and non-living creatures this way,
Light has only to become and be what it is. The firmament has only to divide. The waters have only to gather. The results of the activity of the action of these creatures do not extend beyond themselves to the existence of other creatures. But the earth…has a transitive character…It produces things that are different from itself….
Barth portrays creaturely life as both ‘produced by God’ and totally natural. As in Farrer’s lower levels of providential double-agency, Barth preserves the full integrity and relative individuality of the creature while affirming divine agency in each moment of existence. The Creator both creates the nature of the impersonal creature and personally acts in double-agency using ‘creaturely powers straight…’1
So for Barth, God is the “cause” of all physical occurrence by giving every physical part of creation its peculiar nature and function. All so-called “natural laws” are the result of God’s constant act of creatively ordering the world. Yet at the same time, this divine act makes the “independent” naturalness of the physical world properly real. God does, and so nature does, but nature does precisely as nature and not merely as a divine instrument
This conception of double-agency has two particularly notable results. First is that Barth thus rejects the concept of natural evil. Hurricanes, volcanoes, mosquitos, and carnivorous survival are not, for Barth, effects of sin or the curse but simply expressions of the way that objects and forces with different created natures may interact in abrasive ways. Just as without heat and friction between objects, there could be no motion, so without these various harsh aspects of creaturely existence, there could be no natural world. This reminds me of a section in The City of God where Augustine addresses natural evil by pointing out that just because certain created things are bad for humans does not mean they are inherently bad. Instead, they are good as they act out their God-given natures even when that is problematic for us.
A second result of Barth’s take on double-agency in creation is a rejection of any idea of miracles as breaking or bypassing the created order. If all natural occurrence is in fact already God’s omnipotent action, then Humean miracles would essentially be God bypassing or contradicting Himself. So Barth defines miracles by their meaning and relation to human perception. Miracles occur by natural processes, but they are so wielded by God’s providence as to participate in revelatory significance in key moments of God’s plan.
This rejection of Humean miracles does come with two important qualifications, though. On one hand, Barth defines creation’s natural order in a way that allows for many things we might not be inclined to consider “natural” as in fact perfectly natural. I’ll save the twist on this for my next post. The other qualification is the resurrection of Christ (and thus humanity in Christ), which is neither natural nor a simple violation of nature but in fact a new creation in the midst of the old, a sequel to the ex nihilo work of Genesis 1.
More closely related to the last post, though, and addressing the issue of human evil in providence, is Barth’s understanding of double-agency with respect to persons. Personal beings are more than the sum of their physical parts, after all, especially in that they have true, intentional agency. A particle simply exists and interacts without knowledge or motive, but human persons move autonomously and make choices. It is in this sphere, then, in which double-agency means the most.
As said before, Barth acknowledges the act of God in every occurrence, thus including human decisions, even evil ones. But Barth is no fool who simply treats humans like rocks and stones moved by God deterministically. To summarize Kennedy’s presentation of Barth’s view of double-agency in persons, I’ll offer three points which describe the act of God in human action.
First, God acts creatively to sustain the human’s being and willing as a creature. God has made man with certain volitional capacities which, while never intended to host sinfulness, have become inhabited by sin in such a way that God must allow sinful wills to play out their desires for a time or otherwise go back upon His creative will in unfaithfulness to Himself. While Barth probably would have objected to the term “free will” being applied here, what we are essentially faced with is a relocation of the doctrine of free will to Creator/creature distinction, suggesting that God mustn’t control in an overruling way human wills if He wishes to preserve the integrity of His creatures precisely as creatures. Thus God acts in human action by creating and sustaining human agency and volition which would otherwise not exist.
Second, God acts in all human action to determine it as positive or negative witness to election in Jesus Christ. This follows closely from what was discussed in the last post about Gods “Yes” or “No” to all human choice. As is well-known, for Barth election means God’s predetermination to be for all mankind in the mediation of Jesus Christ, the Son of God and Son of Man. Unlike Calvin, who considered the election and reprobation of men as part of the general doctrine of providence applied to salvation, Barth puts election before providence as its original ground. Providence follows from election so that God acts to determine all human acts as either a positive witness to election, humanity living in his truth as elected man, or negative witness to election, humanity living the lie as a rejected man who is nonetheless elected. Those who obey God do so as servants, friends, and willing participants in God’s electing purpose, whereas those who disobey God do so as deceived creatures thinking themselves independent of God when in fact they are elected for Him in Christ. The disobedient do not intent to glorify God or witness to His grace, but God overcomes their intention to instead use their disobedience as a sign of His electing grace. Thus Barth says of them, “The rejected as such has no independent existence in the presence of God. He is not determined by God merely to be rejected. He is determined to hear and say that a rejected man is elected.”2 Kennedy helpfully shows how Barth applied this thought to Judas:
The Lordship of God determined, determines and will determine all things as witnesses to election.
The example of Judas helps to demonstrate Barth’s understanding of providence under election. It also gives a particular example of the way Barth avoids both the charge of determinism and of making God the author of sin. At no point do Judas’ actions cease to be determined by God’s active electing will, but Judas is no puppet or chessman. He rebels against God and acts as if he were a godless person. Contrary to deterministic views, Judas’ betrayal was not ‘written’, required by God’s plan or specifically necessary for God’s salvific purposes. God determines the betrayal for the realization of God’s will, but Judas did not have to betray Jesus any more than the other disciples were inhibited from doing so by God. Barth states bluntly that the other disciples shared the same perverse ‘possibility’ of Judas,
To be sure, they have not actually done it or co-operated with [Judas]. But the point is that they obviously could have done it. The possibility of doing it was their possibility too… any of the others might equally well have been the one.
As ‘the great sinner of the New Testament’, Judas illustrates the perverse impossible possibility of the ‘rejected’. In his will and act of handing-over Jesus, Judas’ ‘disobedience was certainly not obedience. On the contrary, it was total disobedience.’ Nevertheless, Judas’ betrayal encounters the sovereign determination of God and therefore will witness to the grace of God…Barth has shown the omnipotence of God’s providential determination without any possibility of determinism in a mechanical or overpowering sense. God does not interfere in Judas’s actions, but determines them—‘against [Judas’] will and deserts (gegen seinen Willen und Verdienst)’—as a witness. Likewise, Judas’s sin remains Judas’s responsibility, though determined by God’s left hand. In such a view, God cannot be understood as either the ‘author of sin’ or as a monadic tyrant.3
This is a rather interesting conception in my opinion, and it works well as an account of how God can work all things to His glory without being the author, deviser, or even far remote cause of sin. God does not determine Judas to sin, but He determines Judas and his sin as involuntary, unwilling testimony to God’s grace toward sinners in Jesus. The depth of Judas’ depravity can only come to highlight the glorious love of Christ in choosing, coming, and dying for such a sinner. Rather than God glorifying Himself simply by damning the sinner (as is the case in most Calvinist conceptions of reprobation and providence), God is glorified by being the one who, even in and to the point of the sinner’s damnation, loves and mercies him, subjecting even all of his wickedness to this omnipotent benevolence.
Third, God acts in every human action by integrating it into a wider scope of providence that ultimately brings God glory and humanity grace, regardless of its intention. In Barth’s conception of double-agency, God’s sovereignty is exercised by the triumph of His intention over and against the contrary intention of the sinful creature. God does not properly cause, either directly or indirectly, the creature to do evil, but He overcomes and determines creaturely evil for His good by the power of Cross and Resurrection. Since God is in His eternity knows, wills, and acts before, during, and after all creaturely action, He may providentially incorporate all human action into a series of events into which the sinful man does not wish them to play any part, but which accomplishes the will of God. Before man acts, God sets His electing determination and His benevolent will into absolute place. When man acts, God acts alongside according to His own purpose and will determined in election. After man acts, God continues to have power to fulfill His intention even though the creature has lost power over his own intention to the unstoppable flow of time. Thus God is radically superior to human willing and doing, able by His free transcendence to act in relation to a single, limited human act from and in all of time and space. Man’s act and intention are finite, but God’s act and intention vis-a-vis man’s act are free of any limitation. And while I focus on how this relates to sin, it also has meaning for human obedience. God acts before, during, and after all human goodness so that He can confirm it and incorporate it into a greater purpose which fulfills its faithful intention beyond what the limited Christian is capable of accomplishing. Thus for Barth, all of our obedience can, by God’s providence, take on more duration and significance than we have an ability to give it.
Clearly, then, Barth affirms a strong doctrine of providential double-agency which portrays God as truly and utterly sovereign even while Barth ardently rejects and refuses the determinism or quasi-determinism of standard Reformed versions of providence. There is no hidden control of creaturely action in Barth, but there is a determination shaped by election which respects creaturely being and act even while confirming or contradicting the creaturely intention from a superior and eternal standpoint. While some questions and possible critiques remain, particularly in relation to miracles (though some of this will be covered in the next post), the overall strengths are again clear. Election in Christ is at the front, God does not in any way author sin, but God remains comprehensively sovereign, even to the being omnicausal.
I recently started the first volume of Evangelical Calvinism, the big book of essays meant to explain and present the basic mood and mode of this growing development in Reformed theology which goes by that name. It is something of an EC inaugural announcement, showing the basics of what an Evangelical Calvinist approach to the Reformed tradition can look like.
Needless to say, I’m excited. Last night I read the prologue, which was actually just a copy of a declaration by the Presbyterian Church (USA) about union with Christ. It makes for a lovely introduction to how Evangelical Calvinism views theology as a whole, which really is all about union with Christ. Because I love it so much, and because it does a great job indicating the basic mood and direction of EC theology, I’m going to quote it in full (the original can be found here):
Union In Christ: A Declaration
With the witness of Scripture and the Church through the ages we declare:
Jesus Christ is the gracious mission of God to the world and for the world.
He is Emmanuel and Savior,
One with the Father,
God incarnate as Mary’s son,
Lord of all,
The truly human one.
His coming transforms everything.
His Lordship casts down every idolatrous claim to authority.
His incarnation discloses the only path to God.
His life shows what it means to be human.
His atoning death reveals the depth of God’s love for sinners.
His bodily resurrection shatters the powers of sin and death.
The Holy Spirit joins us to Jesus Christ by grace alone, uniting our life with his through the ministry of the Church.
In the proclamation of the Word, the Spirit calls us to repentance, builds up and renews our life in Christ, strengthens our faith, empowers our service, gladdens our hearts, and transforms our lives more fully into the image of Christ.
We turn away from forms of church life that ignore the need for repentance, that discount the transforming power of the Gospel, or that fail to pray, hope and strive for a life that is pleasing to God.
In Baptism and conversion the Spirit engrafts us into Christ, establishing the Church’s unity and binding us to one another in him.
We turn away from forms of church life that seek unity in theological pluralism, relativism or syncretism.
In the Lord’s Supper the Spirit nurtures and nourishes our participation in Christ and our communion with one another in him.
We turn away from forms of church life that allow human divisions of race, gender, nationality, or economic class to mar the Eucharistic fellowship, as though in Christ there were still walls of separation dividing the human family.
Engrafted into Jesus Christ we participate through faith in his relationship with the Father.
By our union with Christ we participate in his righteousness before God, even as he becomes the bearer of our sin.
We turn away from any claim to stand before God apart from Christ’s own righteous obedience, manifest in his life and sacrifice for our sake on the cross.
By our union with Christ we participate in his knowledge of the Father, given to us as the gift of faith through the unique and authoritative witness of the Old and New Testaments.
We turn away from forms of church life that discount the authority of Scripture or claim knowledge of God that is contrary to the full testimony of Scripture as interpreted by the Holy Spirit working in and through the community of faith across time.
By our union with Christ we participate in his love of the Father, manifest in his obedience “even unto death on the cross.”
We turn away from any supposed love of God that is manifest apart from a continual longing for and striving after that loving obedience which Christ offers to God on our behalf.
Though obscured by our sin, our union with Christ causes his life to shine forth in our lives. This transformation of our lives into the image of Christ is a work of the Holy Spirit begun in this life as a sign and promise of its completion in the life to come.
By our union with Christ our lives participate in the holiness of the One who fulfilled the Law of God on our behalf.
We turn away from forms of church life that ignore Christ’s call to a life of holiness, or that seek to pit Law and Gospel against one another as if both were not expressions of the one Word of God.
By our union with Christ we participate in his obedience. In these times of moral and sexual confusion we affirm the consistent teaching of Scripture that calls us to chastity outside of marriage and faithfulness within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman.
We turn away from forms of church life that fail to pray for and strive after a rightly ordered sexuality as the gracious gift of a loving God, offered to us in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. We also turn away from forms of church life that fail to forgive and restore those who repent of sexual and other sins.
As the body of Christ the Church has her life in Christ.
By our union with Christ the Church binds together believers in every time and place.
We turn away from forms of church life that identify the true Church only with particular styles of worship, polity, or institutional structure. We also turn away from forms of church life that ignore the witness of those who have gone before us.
By our union with Christ the Church is called out into particular communities of worship and mission.
We turn away from forms of church life that see the work of the local congregation as sufficient unto itself, as if it were not a local representation of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church called together by the power of the Spirit in every age and time until our Lord returns.
By our union with Christ our lives participate in God’s mission to the world:
to uphold the value of every human life,
to make disciples of all peoples,
to establish Christ’s justice and peace in all creation,
and to secure that visible oneness in Christ that is the
promised inheritance of every believer.
We turn away from forms of church life that fail to bear witness in word and deed to Christ’s compassion and peace, and the Gospel of salvation.
By our union with Christ the Church participates in Christ’s resurrected life and awaits in hope the future that God has prepared for her. Even so come quickly, Lord Jesus!
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
I was a latecomer to the party, but last week I saw Frozen, and I completely loved it. It is the best Disney animation I’ve ever seen (noting that I don’t remember at all some of the classics I saw when I was young). I really liked Tangled. I liked Wreck-It Ralph. But Frozen blew them both out of the water. Besides the obvious attractions (excellent music, great visuals, etc.), I think there a number of themes, messages, and object lessons to be found that truly set Frozen apart from the pack. I’ll give five great truths to see in Frozen. (Spoilers ahead if you haven’t seen the movie yet!)
Yeah, About “True Love”
No movies are more associated with the myths surrounding “true love” than Disney movies. So when Frozen defies the stereotypes not once but twice, I find myself someone refreshed. Early in the movie, when Anna meets Hans and they almost instantly fall in love (which led to the excellent “Love is an Open Door” song), their quick engagement doesn’t seem that stunning. If they had followed through and gotten married, no one would have batted an eye because in the Disney universe, you can find true love in a few hours. Yet not in Frozen. Instead, the concept of such instant love is scoffed by Else, ridiculed by Kristoff, and finally revealed as a scam when Hans betrays Anna and exposes his true motives. (This was, by the way, one of my few nitpicks with the movie. The twist was a good idea, but I think they played the good-Hans a little too convincingly up until that point, making his actual plan seem like an unrealistic twist.)
“Love is putting someone else’s needs before yours.”
If Frozen had stopped there, I would have been content. Yet the challenges continues. Near the end, when Anna is dying of her frozen heart and racing for Kristoff, apparently her real true love, she sees Hans about to kill Elsa and turns to save her. She chooses to save her sister instead of be saved by her handsome hero. Again, this is a refreshing twist on the usual portrayal of love. In fact, this self-sacrifice becomes the act of true love which thaws Anna’s frozen heart. This goes well with what the quite wonderful snowman Olaf said, which is a much better definition of love than what some will give: “Love is putting someone else’s needs before yours.” Word, Disney. Frozen’s portrayal of love actually reminds me of Jesus’ words in John 15:13, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
Letting Go: The Right and the Wrong
Even if you haven’t seen Frozen, there is a good chance that you’ve heard the musical masterpiece that is “Let It Go” (and if you haven’t, then go to YouTube right now and listen). Easily the most memorable and high quality song of any Disney movie in many years, “Let It Go” expresses the sudden shift in Elsa when, having failed at her number one goal to never let anyone see her icy powers, she takes a 180 and decides to embrace and explore her abilities far away from all the people from whom she had been hiding. For years, she blocked out everyone else and isolated herself, trying to hold in her powers and not hurt anyone. Now she’s failed, and she’s ready to quit that road and enjoy what she can do.
The funny thing about “Let it Go” is that most people seem to miss the point. Far from being an anthem of self-expression and self-realization, “Let It Go” marks Elsa only getting things half-right. She rightly realizes that the suppression she put on her abilities have been damaging, and she does well to embrace them, but what she fails to see is that the most dangerous part of her power is still present. She still isolates herself. She still fears sharing her life with others and loving people. So she goes to the wilderness and revels in her self-satisfying abilities, but remains broken, as is clearly seen later when Anna tries to bring her home. What “Let It Go” really shows us is that self-expression alone is quit unsatisfying and impotent.
For Elsa, sharing herself and her powers with others to benefit them is shown to be the best way to live.
Fortunately, Elsa is eventually redeemed from her isolation, and when she learns to love her powers are no longer an uncontrollable force of destruction but a beautiful force for good. Enjoying her powers alone left Elsa only slightly better off than repressing them alone, but sharing herself and her powers with others to benefit them (like ice skating for all her people, or using a magic cloud of snow flurries to keep Olaf around in summer) is shown to be the best way to live. This is a pretty great alternative to the usual Disney message, which makes self-expression the primary virtue and only brings others into play as people who support your self-expression, and whose self-expression you support. In fact, this makes me think of verses like, “Everyone should look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others” (Phil. 2:4) and “Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others” (1 Pet. 4:10).
No Christian review for Frozen would be complete without mentioning Anna’s Christ-like sacrifice at the resolution of the movie. Though Elsa has frozen her heart, when she comes to the choice of being saved by her apparent true love or losing her last moments to save Elsa, she chooses the latter. The Christian parallels should be obvious. We were not worthy of God’s love any more than Elsa had deserved Anna’s. Indeed, we treated God and His grace with far more contempt than Elsa did to Anna. Elsa shut Anna out of her life, but Paul tells us that we were once enemies of God and hostile to Him (Rom. 5:10). Yet Anna continued to love Elsa by choice, regardless of merit, just as God has been faithful to love us in spite of all our wrongdoing and rebellion. Anna’s love ultimately became the means for redemption, for though Elsa had brought death upon herself by her frozen outburst, ready to fall to Hans’ sword, Anna gave her life to save her. Elsa was saved by this love, and indeed this constituted just the “act of true love” which was needed to thaw Anna’s frozen heart, giving her a kind of resurrection (any time you throw in sacrifice+resurrection, my Christian allegory senses start tingling). In a similar way, Christ died for us even while we remained estranged from Him, and by His death we are saved from death, and in the end He rose from the grave, leading to reconciliation between us and God.
The best part about this particular event is that Anna’s sacrifice really makes every bit of good as an allegory for the Cross as Aslan’s death in The Chronicles of Narnia, even though C. S. Lewis’s work was specifically intended to have such a parallel while, as far as anyone knows, Frozen was not. Yet the story of redeeming love breaks out even here because the reality is powerful. What Jesus really did is something so marvelous that His story begs to be mirrored, even if unconsciously. Pointing this out to children who see Frozen is, in my opinion, an excellent idea and a great excuse to watch the movie again (and again).
Law and Grace
I actually missed this connection at first. Somehow the thought escaped me. Only after I read this blog post did I notice. Yet Frozen actually makes a good allegory for the dynamics of law and grace, in addition to the other themes. See, in the beginning, Elsa works entirely by her willpower to obey one command, first imposed by her parents and then self-imposed: “Conceal it, don’t feel it, don’t let it show.” She is motivated by fear to follow this charge strictly, as one deviation could ruin everything. Yet this doesn’t actually help. The rule doesn’t work. Instead, Elsa’s powers grow increasingly uncontrollable and dangerous. This parallels life under the Law. The Law can do nothing to change or save us. We find ourselves controlled by sin and fear, and the Law cannot do anything about that. Instead, we are unable to keep the Law, and until we realize our hopeless state we will continue to disappoint.
Though the law of concealing failed her, Elsa finds she can live differently when grace comes from Anna. This is also like the grace that God gives us. Though we are unable to keep the Law, through grace we can begin to live in the way that God has prepared for us.
Yet then there is grace. While facing death, Anna makes a choice to show mercy. She sacrifices herself for her sister who doesn’t deserve any help. Anna loves and sacrifices because she chose to love an unworthy Elsa, and this is what sets Elsa free. No longer a slave to fear and unable to control her powers, Elsa finds freedom in the love and grace showed to her by her sister. Grace thaws the frozen heart and enables real life. Though the law of concealing failed her, Elsa finds she can live differently when grace comes. This is also like the grace that God gives us. Jesus died for us while we were yet sinners (Rom. 5:8), and this sets us free from condemnation and the power of sin. We no longer have to fear, and we can begin to live in the way that God has prepared for us. Grace changes us and enables us to live more in line with the Law than we ever could when we were under the Law.
I could go on about other great parts of Frozen, but these are the main themes I wanted to highlight. Frozen gives better moral messages than most Disney productions, and also unwittingly provides powerful Christian allegory about law, grace, and redemption. Plus, being an animated Disney movie, you can count on the lack of objectionable content (unless the words “gassy” or “impaled” upset you). There are some who claim a pro-gay theme running throughout the movie, but I deem their claims hogwash and refer you to this blog for reasons why. So, needless to say, my children will enjoy Frozen one day, as I have, and they will certainly hear the Gospel commentary from me afterwards. For the rest of you, I encourage everyone to see this great movie if you haven’t already!