Bruce McCormack on Barth’s Doctrine of Election

Bruce McCormack“Grace and Being: The Role of God’s Gracious Election in Karl Barth’s Theological Ontology” in McCormack, B.L., Orthodox and Modern: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth, 183-200.

This was the article that started what has become a debate if not a furore, in Barth studies. In his essay McCormack not only sketched the primary outlines of Barth’s doctrine of election but registered ‘a critical correction against Barth,’ aiming to remove what he viewed as an inconsistency in Barth’s thought.[1] To understand what this critical correction is, it is necessary to briefly trace McCormack’s argument in the essay.

McCormack begins by correctly asserting that Barth’s revision of Calvin’s version of the doctrine has more to do with the doctrine of God than with the question of who belongs amongst the elect, although Barth does indeed replace Calvin’s double predestination with a universal election. Barth asks who the predestining God is, and more fundamentally, how it is possible that God could become human without introducing a rift into the very being of God. He addresses both questions by positing Jesus Christ as the subject of election: the God who elects is none other than the God revealed in the person and history of Jesus of Nazareth. From all eternity God self-determined to be God for us, God who became human in history in the person of Jesus Christ, and who, through his human experience of death, took death itself into the very life of God in order to triumph over it and deliver all humanity from its power. Because election is an eternal decision of self-determination, God’s being is unchanged by the incarnation and crucifixion. That is, God is in himself and from all eternity, what he became in time in the person of Jesus Christ:

God does not cease to be God in becoming incarnate and dying in this way. God takes this human experience into his own life and extinguishes its power over us. But God is not changed on an ontological level by this experience for the simple reason that God’s being, from eternity, is determined as a being-for this event.[2]

As stated, Barth’s intent in formulating his doctrine in this way, was to identify the electing God. God is not an absolute and hidden despot who has for reasons beyond human comprehension, divided humanity into those elect and those reprobate. Rather, the electing God is Jesus Christ whom we encounter in the history of redemption. God’s election is not a twofold division of humanity in eternity, but a covenant of grace whereby God takes upon himself the wrath that ought to have fallen on humanity in order to be gracious to us in Christ.

Thus far McCormack has accurately reported the intent and content of Barth’s doctrine. But McCormack wants to go further, and to suggest that the divine decision of election is constitutive of the divine being. Initially, he argues as follows:

In what sense, then, is the incarnation of the “Son” and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit “constitutive” of the eternal being of God? In this sense only: as a consequence of the primal decision in which God assigned to himself the being he would have throughout eternity (a being-for the human race), God is already in pretemporal eternity—by way of anticipation—that which God would become in time.[3]

If one considers the decision of election as an eternal self-determination, then one can understand McCormack’s point in this citation. Because there is no before and after in eternity, God’s eternal decision has no before and after, so that God is, was, and always will be the God he determined to be in this primal decision. Further, because God determined to be God in relation with humanity, to become human, to dwell within human persons, these determinations which would become actuality in time and place, are already actual—by way of anticipation—in the eternal being of God.

It is at this point that McCormack introduces his innovative proposal:

Throughout the exposition provided above, an unarticulated question hovered in the immediate background…what is the logical relation of God’s gracious election to the triunity of God? … It should be noted that Barth never put the question to himself in this precise form… Logically, his mature view of election would have required the retraction of certain of his earlier claims about the relation of revelation and triunity, finding in them a far too open door to the kind of speculation his mature doctrine of election sought to eliminate. … Of course, it would always remain true for Barth that God is triune in himself (in pretemporal eternity) and not just in his historical revelation. Were God triune only in his revelation, the immanent Trinity would collapse into the economic Trinity. But that God is triune for the sake of his revelation? How could Barth deny this without positing a mode of existence in God above and prior to God’s gracious election—the very thing he accused Calvin of having done?[4]

McCormack insists that Barth’s mature christology, grounded in his doctrine of election, and developed subsequently to his doctrine of the Trinity, requires a change in his doctrine of the Trinity. In this citation, McCormack goes “beyond” Barth, suggesting that “God is triune for the sake of his revelation.” This appears to suggest that God’s triunity is incidental to his essential being, but this is not what McCormack means. He spells it out more clearly as follows:

These commitments require that we see the triunity of God, logically, as a function of divine election. Expressed more exactly: the eternal act of Self-differentiation in which God is God “a second time in a very different way” (CD I/1: 316, 324) and a third time as well is given in the eternal act in which God elects himself for the human race. The decision for the covenant of grace is the ground of God’s triunity and therefore of the eternal generation of the Son and the eternal procession of the Holy Spirit from the Father and the Son. In other words, the works of God ad intra (the trinitarian processions) find their ground in the first of the works of God ad extra (viz., election). And this also means that eternal generation and eternal procession are willed by God; they are not natural to God if “natural” is taken to mean a determination of being which is fixed in advance of all actions and relations.[5]

It is now evident why McCormack’s proposal has generated intense discussion amongst Barth scholars. First, he goes beyond what Barth said and continued to say into his late career. Second, his proposal appears illogical: how can God’s decision be constitutive of God’s being, in the sense of being its ground? Surely God must be prior to his decision? Third, if God’s decision issues in the eternal missions of the Son and the Spirit, then does God as a monad somehow precede God as triune, despite the rhetoric of it being an eternal decision? Care is needed here, for McCormack takes pains to reiterate time and again that he is speaking of a logical relation that has nothing to do with temporal categories. Nevertheless, the questions must be put and have been put to McCormack, who has also risen to the challenge of defending his proposal against his critics. How successfully he has done so remains to be seen.


[1] McCormack, Bruce L. “Grace and Being: The Role of God’s Gracious Election in Karl Barth’s Theological Ontology.” In Orthodox and Modern: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth, 183-200. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008: 193. (Originally published in The Cambridge Companion to Karl Barth (ed. John Webster; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 92-110.

[2] McCormack, “Grace and Being,” 189.

[3] McCormack, “Grace and Being,” 191, original emphasis.

[4] McCormack, “Grace and Being,” 192-193, original emphasis.

[5] McCormack, “Grace and Being,” 194, original emphasis.

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