Continuing a new series of posts (a modification and serialisation of one of my MA-level essays) thinking through a Christian response to suicide, today we reach our third post. Following an introductory post, a post about suicide and the biblical material, and one on how suicide has been engaged with by the Christian tradition, today I want to start turning towards a pastoral solution, by considering how The Doctrine of the Sovereignty of God might offer us some assistance. I hope it is useful to some of you.
iv. The Doctrine of the Sovereignty of God
In his article in the Dictionary of Scripture and Ethics, Allen Verhey powerfully observes that it is not ‘sufficient to shout a prohibition against suicide or assisted suicide, even one formed out of Scripture’s story. What is required is not law but a powerful and creative word of grace’(2011, 759). This resonates with the position seen in Barth (2010, 406-7) and Bonhoeffer (2009, 200) which build on the generally Reformed and essentially Calvinian articulation of the Doctrine of the Sovereignty of God. In closing a stimulating issue of Concilium (1985), Adrian Holderegger notes that ‘the tradition of moral theology has seen in God’s sovereignty the decisive argument against man’s ability freely to dispose of himself’ (1985, 92), and this traditional resource has vital importance for present-day consideration of the question. In order to move from abstract doctrine to pastoral application, then, we must consider the Doctrine of the Sovereignty of God and note the ways that it has been and could be used in pastoral engagement with individuals dealing in some way with suicide.
The particular articulation of the Doctrine of the Sovereignty of God as posed by Calvin is often caricatured as a cold and cruel dictator, both for the author and the version of God proposed, but this is inaccurate. This can, it is argued, be seen in the inheritors and expositors of Calvin’s position – in the broadest sense – as they engage pastorally, sensitively and faithfully with this critical and controversial topic.
Bonhoeffer emphasises in his discussion of suicide two key elements of a pastoral response to suicide. Firstly, he notes that ‘those who stand on the verge of self-murder no longer hear a prohibition or command’ (2009, 200), and this is worth noting. A considered pastoral approach will not heap condemnation on an individual who has already condemned themselves. Rather, as Bonhoeffer goes on to say, ‘they can hear only the gracious call of God to faith, to salvation, and to turning back’ (2009, 200). The role of the pastor is not to further condemnation but to offer a hope that comes from outside both the pastor and the individual. Bonhoeffer notes, contra the common attempt at self-justification, that ‘the despairing cannot be saved by any law appealing to their own strength; this only drives them into more hopeless despair’ (2009, 200). This is vital, and must be understood in terms of God’s gracious sovereignty, in the light of ‘the offer of a new life that is lived not by their own strength but by the grace of God’ (Bonhoeffer, 2009, 200). Whatever life that comes after the suicide attempt, or expression of suicidal intent/desire, Bonhoeffer is arguing passionately, must be marked by the difference of living under the grace of God.
Much contemporary discussion of this topic strays into discussion of euthanasia and the oft-invoked right to life, or right to die. Such talk of rights is engaged head on by Bonhoeffer, whose rhetoric regarding the futility of rights-language (2009, 203) is cemented by the rhetorical question, ‘and who would say under this most severe temptation the grace of God cannot embrace and bear even failure?’. (2009, 203). This emphasis on grace is powerful – for Bonhoeffer, no abstract concept of rights will do, the only hope for any of us ‘the grace that one may continue living under God’s forgiveness’(2009, 203). Whilst it is beyond the scope of the present discussion to engage with questions of euthanasia, Bonhoeffer’s careful yet confident analysis serves as a doorway to future pondering on the topic, again encompassed in the radical nature of the graceful sovereignty of God.
When considering the pastoral dimension of this topic of suicide, it is vital to remember the effects of those who survive an attempt, and the loved ones of those who do take their own life. Varah notes that ‘while persons who kill themselves are beyond help, their survivors are not’ (2002, 362), which provokes the question of the application of this pastoral flavour of the Doctrine of the Sovereignty of God to those who are recently bereaved. The powerful and present Grace of God, outlined in the Gospel, is the needed balm for the sufferers. In his Self, World, and Time, Oliver O’Donovan offers a powerful reflection on the role of moral advisor, which can be seen to be broadly commensurate with the role of a pastor in this situation. This must be rooted deeply in what O’Donovan calls ‘a well-formed knowledge of good and evil’ (2013, 51), even as it is an ‘imaginative adventure’ (2013, 51) that is sensitive to the individual case. O’Donovan writes that the role of the adviser here ‘is to bring the sufferer out of isolation’ (2013, 51) which is a powerful image for the role of the pastoral in relation to the bereaved, especially of suicide, and also in relation to those who are contemplating taking their own life. This isolation, for both the sufferer and those around them, is a common theme in accounts of suicide, as we can be seen in Durkheim’s work (1968, ), and as noted in practical textbooks such as Cooper and Kapur (2004, 21), and Lukas and Seiden (1997, 59).
In the fifth and final part of this essay/series, I will attempt to offer some concluding thoughts.
Bibliography for this section:
Barth, K. (2010). Church Dogmatics: Vol. III The Doctrine of Creation part 4, (Hendrickson, Peabody)
Bonhoeffer, D. (2009). Ethics, (Fortress Press, Minneapolis)
Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, (References inline)
Cooper, J., and Kapur, N. (2004). Assessing Suicide Risk, p. 20-39 in eds. Duffy, D. and Ryan, T. New Approaches to Preventing Suicide: a manual for practitioners, (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, London)
Durkheim, E. (1968). Suicide: A Study in Sociology, (Routledge, London)
Holderegger, A. (1985). A Right to a Freely Chosen Death? Some Theological Considerations, p. 90-100 in Eds., Pohier, J. and Mieth, D. (T&T Clark, Edinburgh)
Lukas, C., and Seiden, H. M. (1997). Silent Grief: Living in the Wake of Suicide, (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, London)
Oliver O’Donovan, Self, World and Time,
Varah, C. (2002). Suicide, p. 362 in Ed. Carr, W. The New Dictionary of Pastoral Studies, (SPCK, London)
Verhey, A., (2011). Suicide, p. 758-60 in ed., Green, J. B. Dictionary of Scripture and Ethics, (Baker Academic, Grand Rapids)