In my first blog on Karl Barth’s theology of vocation, I wrote about Barth’s criterion of an individual’s responsibility to the commands of God, the caller. Humans are becoming even as they are perishing. Barth continues in Church Dogmatics: The Doctrine of Creation III.4 (Freedom in Limitation, Chapter XII, Section 56, T&T Clark International, G. W. Bromiley & T. F. Torrance, Editors, 1960, pages 565–647) with three additional criterions.
The second criterion is “that every man has his special historical situation. This is the external limitation of his vocation. … By the historical situation of a man we are to understand his country, century, generation and ancestry, the comprehensive state of political, economic, cultural and ecclesiastical affairs, the nature and level of humanity, habits, intellectual conceptions and morality in his immediate environment, the possibilities of education and development presented to him and the fellow-men who in various ways meet, accompany and then leave him again.”
Although the historical situation is created by others when a person is born and develops, a person is not destined to follow this path within their vocation. “Otherwise we should obviously find ourselves engulfed at once in an evil belief in fate, for which the so-called milieu of a man has often enough provided a basis in both ancient and modern times. According to this view, man is the product of his climate, family, class, century, social and other relations, education and upbringing, and the prevailing good or bad habits of his environment. But this is precisely what he is not. … He is not caged in it or chained to it. His situation is not his grave; it is rather his cradle. From it he shall and may learn to live and walk as the goal set for him.” Humans bear responsibility for their vocation and should not allow their historical situation to dominate their choice.
The third criterion is “the external limitation of every human vocation has a corresponding internal limit. This consists in the personal aptitude of the man.” We all can relate to our internal limitations. No matter how hard I try, I cannot run a four-minute mile or even get close to this feat. I never mastered a second language while others have mastered many languages. Yet, God still calls me. “Within its limit, but also in its fulness, he stands before God and has to listen and answer and obey. He did not choose it. He was not asked whether he is pleased with it. He has received it from God, his Creator and Lord, as he enters upon decision and act.”
Should we worry that our internal limitations are not good enough or that we cannot perform our occupations as well as others? Barth clearly says no. “He must not waste time considering how fine it would be if his were like theirs. If it is good enough for God to begin dealings with him at this point, then it ought to be good enough for him to begin dealings with God at this point. … It is not required that he contribute much that is beautiful or out of the ordinary; it is required that he contribute what is his own, and that he do it totally.” Barth references 1 Corinthian 12 (variety of spiritual gifts) and Matthew 25:14–30 (the parable of the talents) as God instructing humans to use their God-given gifts to the best of their individual abilities.
The fourth and last limitation of God’s calling is that “every man has his more or less clearly circumscribed sphere of human operation, the field of his ordinary everyday activity, the place in life at which he is in his own way an active member of society, at once maintaining and developing himself and making his special contribution to the fulfilment of the common task of humanity.” The calling that comes by God is not an accident. However, humans have freedom in choosing. “It may do so rightly, in obedience to God and therefore in the use of its freedom. It may do so wrongly and arbitrarily, and therefore in the misuse and consequent forfeiture of its freedom. But either way, it chooses. … The critical question is whether he will achieve the freedom of obedience in this particular sphere and under all the other signs of his creaturely vocation.”
Humans fulfill the will of God within their independence and responsible choices. “Even in his sphere of operation, as in his age, historical situation and particular aptitude, man finds himself within the limits which God has set for him.” In summary, “the vocation of man as such, as it is to be understood as a decree of God, must also be understood as man’s answer to the divine calling, as a result of his attitude to the command of God. … Man has to ask himself at least three practical questions: first, of course, the question of correct or obedient choice of his sphere of operation; then of correct or obedient existence in the chosen sphere; and finally of the possibility of commanded and therefore correct or obedient change or transition from one sphere to another.”