In my second blog on Karl Barth’s theology of vocation, I wrote about Barth’s second (historical situation), third (internal limitations), and fourth vocation criterion (sphere of operations). He continues this vocation section 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) by examining two questions.
The first question is what should an individual do when confronting several opportunities that entice him or her? Barth dismisses the older Pietists’ saying: “What we take ill, Will be God’s will.” Barth cautions by stating that “a sphere of operation is certainly not chosen correctly if we do not ask whether it is inwardly commanded and decreed, or if it is selected in opposition to what is inwardly commanded and decreed.” What takes priority: “our endowment and inclination, our inward constraint?” or “the corresponding sovereign call from without?” “The correct decision is always made precisely where the two lines intersect. … At this point the demand of an opportunity presented from without coincides with that of a possibility given from within.”
Barth’s theology is dialectic. He understands the paradoxes and complexities of life. God’s command is not as simple as humans would prefer, but multifaceted. “The main point is that the command of God should be perceived in, with and under the demand of the external and internal world, in the outward constraint on the one side and the inward on the other. … This alone gives both the external and the internal voice the character of a command. … God alone can give both the outward and the inward voice authority and compulsion. We must not fail to hear these two voices. … They are the creaturely carriers and media of the voice of God himself.”
He now turns the question back to the individual confronting a vocational choice. “How far man is willing, able and ready, not primarily or finally from without, from within, or from both sides together and in concert, to listen to God’s own voice and to be told by Him — all creaturely factors being taken into consideration — for what he has been chosen and therefore what he has to choose, what God wants of him, what sphere of operation he himself must select, what sphere corresponds to his calling and therefore to the service which he has to render.” By listening to God, and to people God uses, a person will make the right choice in obedience to God’s command.
The second question that Barth asks is what a person “thinks he knows as his personal endowment and disposition? … He must make a choice for which he already finds himself chosen even as he makes it.” Barth advocates action rather than continual contemplation. “All this will probably become clear and certain in its proper proportions only as he has grasped and held it for a time. From within things all seem very difficult from what they did from without when they had still to be chosen. A man can really learn to know his sphere of operation only as he occupies it and sets to work in it.”
A person must not merely go through the motions of vocation but must strive to do it well. “Faithfulness in vocation means positively that in my vocation as it is I seek, either well or badly, to do satisfactory work to the best of my ability, skill and conscience, not looking either to the right hand or to the left, giving myself to my own particular concern, remembering always that it is no accident but part of the plan and providence of God that it is my concern, and that God summons me to do justice to it. … The decisive question is whether we have applied ourselves wholeheartedly to our particular concern.”
He labels vocation as the “mystery … in the meeting and consonance of object with subject, of human and material tasks in their particularity with the knowledge, ability and willingness which we bring to them.” This is a dialectic situation where a person can choose to be genuinely faithful and obedient to God’s call or guilty of “laziness, arbitrariness, and folly.” A choice must made. “Faithfulness in vocation arises from the calling of God and man’s faithfulness to this calling.”