Tag Archives: Election

Reading Karl Barth on Election (8)

Church Dogmatics Study EditionSelection: The Church Dogmatics II/2:76-93, The Place of the Doctrine in Dogmatics.

The final subsection of §32 concerns the location of the doctrine in the schema of systematic theology. Barth innovates with respect to the tradition by situating the doctrine of election within the doctrine of God; God himself and all God’s works are a consequence of his election. God is God only as the electing God.

As far as I know, no previous dogmatician has adopted such a course. We must ask then: Is it really the case that the doctrine of election forms a part of the definition of the Subject of all Christian doctrine? … We answer this question affirmatively when we maintain of God that in Himself, in the primal and basic decision in which he wills to be and actually is God, in the mystery of what takes place from and to all eternity within Himself, within His triune being, God is none other than the One who in His Son or Word elects Himself, and in and with Himself elects His people. In so far as God not only is love, but loves, in the act of love which determines His whole being God elects (76).

In this subsection Barth surveys six different ways in which theologians have located the doctrine, especially within the Reformed tradition, and more particularly with reference to Calvin. In classical Reformed Orthodoxy, according to Barth, the doctrine followed the doctrine of God, preceding directly the doctrine of creation and the whole remaining content of confession and dogmatics (77). Nevertheless Barth distinguishes his own position from that of Reformed Orthodoxy because the primary tenet of the tradition was not election at all, but the doctrine of the divine decrees of which the election was simply one part. The election, therefore, was grounded in a doctrine of the “absolute world-governance of God,” thus taking God in his relation to the world as its first datum, and understanding the election in light of this (78).

As Barth turns his attention to other ways of considering the location of election he notes that they all speak first of creation and providence and only then of election, either in connection with providence, or with respect to God’s work of salvation.

The most interesting feature of this section is Barth’s discussion of Calvin. Barth notes that in 1536 in the first edition of his Institutes, Calvin linked the doctrine of election with ecclesiology rather than subsuming it under the doctrine of providence. A year later in the first draft of his Catechism, Calvin placed the doctrine immediately after his treatment of Christology and before his treatment of the Holy Spirit and the church. In the later editions of his Institutes (from 1539-1559), it is treated as the climax of reconciliation, as the last word to be spoken concerning God’s work of salvation, which also casts its light on all that has gone before. Finally, in the Confession Gallicana (1559), Calvin adopted precisely the opposite arrangement in which the election was the first word to be spoken with respect to reconciliation.

It is true that Calvin did partly share and partly inaugurate four different conceptions of the place and function of the doctrine of election. But it is also true that we do not find amongst these the conception which is usually described as classical in Reformed dogmatics. Calvin never connected the doctrine of predestination with that of God, whether directly or indirectly (86).

What Calvin did appear to find in the doctrine of election was this—a final (and therefore a first) word on the whole reality of the Christian life, the word which tells us that the existence and the continuance and the future of that life are wholly and utterly of the free grace of God (86).

Of the four proposals made by Calvin, Barth considers that of his Catechism the best, since it understands election as “an event which works itself out between Christ and the Christian” (88).

Barth’s own method is to attach the doctrine, with Reformed Orthodoxy, to the doctrine of God, and with Calvin, to the doctrine of reconciliation, which is and must be the first, central and definitive word of Christian dogmatics:

The doctrine of election is the last or first or central word in the whole doctrine of reconciliation as [Calvin] rightly perceive[d]. But the doctrine of reconciliation is itself the first or last or central word in the whole Christian confession or the whole of Christian dogma. Dogmatics has no more exalted or profound word—essentially, indeed, it has no other word—than this: that God was in Christ reconciling the world unto himself (88).

The doctrine of election thus serves to identify God as the gracious God and to bring all the works of God under the reign of grace. There is no aspect of existence not encompassed by divine grace. The election is the divine self-determination that God wills to be God solely in Jesus Christ, and to be known, loved, feared and worshipped only as this God (91). Barth insists that this emphasis on divine grace was Calvin’s deepest priority:

We must see the election at the beginning of all the ways of God, and treat of the doctrine accordingly. We believe that in so doing we shall not be disloyal to the intention which activated Calvin especially as he drew up those different outlines. We shall rather be taking up and realising this very same intention (90).

Reading Karl Barth on Election (6)

Church Dogmatics Study EditionSelection: The Church Dogmatics II/2:51-63, The Foundation of the Doctrine.

Of the four possible foundations for the doctrine of election detailed thus far, the final two excite Barth’s interest for in their own way they identify—inadequately to be sure—the elected man and the electing God. “Because of their incorrect form we must reject them as answers to the question of the basis of the doctrine, but we must keep their substance in so far as it indicates the two poles of the problem, God on the one side and man on the other” (52).

It is the name of Jesus Christ which, according to the divine self-revelation, forms the focus at which the two decisive beams of the truth forced upon us converge and unite: on the one hand the electing God and on the other elected man. It is to this name, then, that all Christian teaching of this truth must look, from this name that it must derive, and to this name that it must strive (59).

When Barth asks about the election he insists that “from first to last the Bible directs us to the name of Jesus Christ” (53):

If we would know who God is, and what is the meaning and purpose of His election, and in what respect He is the electing God, then we must look away from all others, and excluding all side glances or secondary thoughts, we must look only upon and to the name of Jesus Christ, and the existence and history of the people of God enclosed within Him (54; cf. 58-59).

To ground the doctrine of election and to speak of elected humanity, Barth turns to the Old Testament, using a narrative and typological approach which shows God’s electing work as God continually narrows his choice from amongst all people to the particular person who is the elect—Jesus Christ. His treatment moves from Adam to Jacob to David to Jeconiah to Zerubbabel and finally to Jesus; four movements in the Old Testament in which each individual named is intended to function as a witness to Jesus Christ who is the fulfilment both of God’s judgement and the promise of God’s grace (55-58).

The Word—that Word which created Israel, and accompanied and directed it as prophetic judge and comforter—the Word itself became flesh. The Word Himself became the Son of David. Now at last there had come the special case for which there had had to be all those others from Adam to Zerubbabel, and for which Israel had had to be separated out from the whole race, and Judah from Israel. This coming was to the detriment of Israel. Face to face with its Messiah, the Son of David who was also the Son of God, Israel knew no better than to give Him up to the Gentiles to be put to death on the cross. In so doing, they confirmed the rightness of God’s dealings with them from the very first, when He cut them off and destroyed them. And yet because the righteousness of God stands fast like the mountains against the unrighteousness of man, this coming was also to the benefit of Israel, and of the Gentiles, and of the world. In the crucifixion of Jesus Christ the world was shown to be a co-partner in guilt with Israel, but only in order that it might be shown a co-partner in the promise with Israel. … Jews and Gentiles were in the same guilt of disobedience. But now they could hear the same words: You, my people; I, God, in the person of David’s Son, your King. Those who are called by this King, and hear this King, whether they are Jews or Gentiles, constitute the people whose existence was envisaged throughout the whole of that long history (57-58).

Barth finds this Christocentric focus of election in the New Testament, especially in Ephesians 1:4, though he also cites Ephesians 1:11 and 3:10, and Romans 8:29: “all these statements show us quite plainly that when we have to do with the reality indicated by the concept of election or predestination we are not outside the sphere of the name of Jesus Christ but within it and within the sphere of the unity of very God and very man indicated by this name” (60). So, too, the Reformers and their followers rightly focussed on Jesus Christ “as a bright, clear mirror of the eternal and hidden election of God” (Calvin; 61). We see in Christ, the mirror of our own election, the ground, prototype and essence of all election. Thus,

The elect must look always to Jesus Christ in matters of the election because whoever is elected is elected in Christ and only Christ. But if this is so, then it is settled conclusively that no one can ever seek the basis of election in himself, because no one is ever elected in himself or for the sake of himself or finally of himself. … It is not in man himself or in the work of man that the basis of election must be sought. It is in this other person who is the person of God himself in the flesh. It is in the work of this other person: a work which comes to man and comes upon man from without; a work which is quite different from anything that he himself is or does. Man and his decision follow the decision which is already made before him, without him and against him; the decision which is not made in himself at all, but is made concerning him in this wholly other person. And as he recognises this, he recognises in truth the meaning and nature of the divine election: that it is the essence of divine favour. He recognises, too, the meaning and nature of the doctrine of election: that it is the sum of the gospel (62-63).

This section is of particular interest, not only because Barth pre-empts his later discussion of Arminianism. His biblical orientation and hermeneutics are on clear display in his discussion of the Old Testament, and in his interaction with and extensive citation of the Reformers Barth skilfully identifies the main lines of the tradition, affirming where he can and also setting the framework for the critical question and observation he will go on to make.

Reading Karl Barth on Election (5)

Church Dogmatics Study EditionSelection: The Church Dogmatics II/2:44-51, The Foundation of the Doctrine.

Barth names the fourth inadequate foundation for the doctrine of election as a doctrine which begins with a view of God in terms of omnipotent will. God is wrongly conceived if viewed as absolute power, and God’s election is also wrongly conceived if viewed as a sub-set of a thorough-going determinism in which God is viewed as the almighty causative agent of every happening. Certainly, for Barth, God is almighty but God’s divinity is not considered in abstraction from election. Indeed, his election is the context within which we conceive of his divinity and providence. The god of absolute power is not the God of Scripture (44-45).

Barth identifies the tendency to subordinate election as one moment in an overarching providence in Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventura, and Zwingli. It is to Calvin’s credit that he broke with this tradition, treating providence together with creation, and predestination as the climax of the grace of God revealed and active in Jesus Christ. However, “that predestination should not only be subordinate to providence but superior to it was apparently not what Calvin intended” (46). Thus, Calvin’s followers again returned to the former tradition in which the ruling concept of the doctrine of election became once more, that of an “absolutely free divine disposing” (46). Barth cites extensively from the recently published volume by Boettner to show the contemporary continuation of this approach, which he attributes to Gomarus rather than Calvin (47).

Barth rejects this approach: “latet periculum in generalibus” (‘danger lurks in generalities!’; 48).

Once again we must say that use has been made here of a presupposition which is not so self-evident as it makes itself out to be. Recourse has been had here to an apparent movement in formal logic from the general to the particular, without any demonstration whether or not such a procedure corresponds to the specific logic of this subject. … If [the doctrine of election] is grounded upon the logical necessity of the free and omnipotent divine will active both in general matters and in particular, both in the world as a whole and also in relation to the salvation and damnation of man, this means that it is…abstractly grounded so far as concerns the electing God (48).

For Barth, the electing God must be properly identified, not abstracted from a general theory of deity. God is sovereign and does indeed rule, but as the one God has self-determined himself to be, in the concrete limitation of his being as given in this election, the particular God known in his self-revelation. Thus,

The true God is the One whose freedom and love have nothing to do with abstract absoluteness or naked sovereignty, but who in His love and freedom has determined and limited Himself to be God in particular and not in general, and only as such to be omnipotent and sovereign and the possessor of all other perfections (49).

If God is viewed abstractly in terms of absolute power and omnipotent will, not only is he viewed in a manner distinct from his self-revelation and the testimony of Scripture (49), it is difficult to escape the danger of portraying God as a tyrant, and of understanding his rule as that of absolute caprice (50-51).

Infinite power in an infinite sphere is rather the characteristic of the government of ungodly and anti-godly courts. God Himself rules in a definite sphere and with a definite power. What makes Him the divine Ruler is the very fact that His rule is determined and limited: self-determined and self-limited, but determined and limited none the less; and not in the sense that His caprice as such constitutes His divine being and therefore the principle of His world-government, but in such a way that He has concretely determined and limited Himself after the manner of a true king (and not of a tyrant); in such a way, then, that we can never expect any decisions from God except those which rest upon this concrete determination and limitation of His being, upon this primal decision made in His eternal being; decisions, then, which are always in direct line with this primal decision, and not somewhere to right or lift of it in an infinite sphere (50).

It is impossible to read these comments written in the early 1940s without hearing veiled references to the absolutist tyranny of Hitler’s Third Reich. Although God is indeed Almighty, his rule is not to be confused with the absolutist pretensions that marked Hitler’s rule. In the decision of election God has determined his being to be God only in a particular way.

Reading Karl Barth on Election (4)

Church Dogmatics Study EditionSelection: The Church Dogmatics II/2:34-44, The Foundation of the Doctrine.

In the second sub-section of Barth’s prologue to the doctrine of election, he considers the source and foundation of the doctrine. He begins by identifying four insufficient bases for the doctrine including simple repetition of the tradition, the utility or usefulness of the doctrine, Christian experience, and a focus on the omnipotent divine will. Of these, Barth focuses especially on the third and fourth items which although wrong in form (52), are yet somewhat correct in intent or substance, in that they at least direct their attention to the elect person and the electing God. Barth declares his methodological hand early:

We must at this point recall the basic rule of all Church dogmatics: that no single item of Christian doctrine is legitimately grounded, or rightly developed or expounded, unless it can of itself be understood and explained as a part of the responsibility laid upon the hearing and teaching Church towards the self-revelation of God attested in Holy Scripture. Thus the doctrine of election cannot legitimately be understood or represented except in the form of an exposition of what God Himself has said and still says concerning Himself. It cannot and must not look to anything but the Word of God, nor set before it anything but the truth and reality of that Word (35).

Barth does not reject tradition, of course, but insists that it cannot be the subject and norm of dogmatic effort. Rather its function is to serve the Word.

But we shall be doing Calvin the most fitting honour if we go the way that he went and start where he started. And according to his own most earnest protestations, he did not start with himself, nor with his system, but with Holy Scripture as interpreted in his system. It is to Scripture that we must again address ourselves, not refusing to learn from that system, but never as ‘Calvinists without reserve.’ And it is to Scripture alone that we must ultimately be responsible (36).

In turning to Scripture, however, care must be exercised lest Scripture be misused:

Is it right to go to the Bible with a question dictated to us by experience, i.e., with a presupposition which has only an empirical basis, in order then to understand the statements of the Bible as an answer to this question, which means chiefly as a confirmation of the presupposition which underlies the question? … If it is to be a question of the divine judgment, as it must be in dealing with the doctrine of election, then Scripture must not be brought in simply as an interpretation of the facts of the case as given by our own judgment. The very facts which we consider must be sought not in the realm of our experience but in Scripture, or rather in the self-revelation of God attested in Scripture (38).

Barth insists that the doctrine of election cannot be read off our experience of the results of gospel proclamation and human response. Such an approach not only is a misuse of Scripture but presumes that the judgement of human experience is equivalent with divine judgement. Barth’s discussion in this matter, then, is a decisive repudiation of Calvin’s approach (39-41), whom he accuses of feeling very competent to distinguish “if not the reprobate, at least the stupid and deceived and wicked who in that age formed so distressingly large a majority of men” (40).

The fact which above all others inspired Calvin, and was thus decisive for the formation of his doctrine, was not at all the contrast between the Church on the one hand, and on the other the heathen world entirely unreached by the Gospel. … Again, it was not the positive observation that at all times the Gospel has both reached so many externally and also seemed to prevail over them internally. … [but] that other fact of experience which excites both pain and anger, the fact of the opposition, the indifference, the hypocrisy and the self-deception with which the Word of God is received by so many of those who hear it (80 per cent, according to the estimate there given). And it is this limiting experience, the negative in conjunction with the positive, which is obviously the decisive factor as Calvin thought he must see it. It was out of this presupposition, laid down with axiomatic certainty, that there arose for him the magnae et arduae quaestiones [great and difficult questions] for which he saw an answer in what he found to be the teaching of Scripture (39-40).

Behind this approach is a presupposition that election concerns God’s eternal and decisive foreordination of every individual in their private relation to God, which is then understood, on the basis of experience, in terms of election and rejection. Although Barth accepts that every person does indeed stand in a private and individual relation to God, and that this relation is indeed decisively determined by God’s election, he nevertheless rejects the presupposition that election is focussed first and primarily on the individual, and the corollary idea that each individual’s private relation to God is thereby unalterably established and determined in advance. God’s election is gracious and free, focussed specifically and primarily on Jesus Christ and his people, and only then on the individual (41-44). The great danger, Barth suggests, is that reading divine election from our experience of the fruitfulness or otherwise of the proclamation of the gospel will result in a portrayal of the electing God who resembles “far too closely the electing, and more particularly the rejecting theologian”! (41)

Reading Karl Barth on Election (3)

Church Dogmatics Study EditionSelection: The Church Dogmatics II/2:25-34, The Orientation of the Doctrine of Election.

Barth concludes his discussion of the orientation of the doctrine by viewing his three central characteristics through the lens of the gospel. The election of God is not bare choice as though the concept of choice can be absolutized.

If we are to understand and explain the nature of this primal and basic act of God, we cannot stop, then, at the formal characteristic that it is a choice. We must resist the temptation to absolutise in some degree the concept of choosing or electing. … It cannot well be denied that there has taken place such an absolutizing of the concept of electing, or of its freedom, with the accompanying influence of a non-Christian conception of God, in the history of the doctrine. … As against that, we must take as our starting-point the fact that this divine choice or election is the decision of the divine will which was fulfilled in Jesus Christ, and which had as its goal the sending of the Son of God (25).

The freedom of God’s decision is not an abstract freedom, but the freedom of the God who loves in freedom. God’s love is the movement toward fellowship, ultimately expressed in John 3:16. Election can be understood only in these terms, and therefore, only as gospel. “What takes place in this election is always that God is for us; for us, and therefore for the world which was created by Him, which is distinct from Him, but which is yet maintained by Him. … This much is certain, that in this election…God loved the world. (25-26).

Barth acknowledges that God’s love toward the world may be resisted and opposed and that there remains a “definite sphere of damnation ordained and determined by God as the negation of the divine affirmation…but the divine affirmation, the divine willing as such, is salvation and not damnation. The message of God’s election means always the message of the Yes determined and pronounced by God” (27). Even in hell we can think only of the love of God; we may have refused God’s election but God has not refused us. “In that decree as such we find only the decree of His love. In the proclaiming and teaching of His election we can hear only the proclaiming of the Gospel” (27).

Thus with respect to the three aspects of a serious doctrine of election, Barth insists,

1. That the freedom of God’s grace and decision unconditionally precedes the creature and so is the ground of the “final and severest humiliation of the creature” (28). God is free to say Yes and, Nevertheless, in the face of human opposition, and so free also to forgive our sins and overcome our resistance to him (31). God’s Yes is his final word and ultimate intent, and is the word which we must declare. The human No is vanquished in the divine Yes; i.e. it cannot be ultimate. Neither, however, can the creature despair. It is humiliated, decentred and relocated, not in autonomy but in the overarching sphere of divine grace. Does this mean human decision is not real? No, but it does mean that it is not ultimate.

He is free rather, and His hand is almighty, in the fact that He can rescue the creature from the destruction into which it has plunged itself by its opposition. He is free in the fact that He can turn it in spite of itself to the salvation and life which are the positive and distinctive meaning and goal of His love. And it is that which God elects (28-29).

2. That the mystery of election remains: it is grounded in God’s own good pleasure which knows no “Wherefore”, that is, no cause outside of God’s own good will. Because it remains inexplicable to us, we can but bow before the gracious God and submit ourselves to him.

Confronted with the mystery of God, the creature must be silent: not merely for the sake of being silent, but for the sake of hearing. Only to the extent that it attains to silence, can it attain to hearing. But, again, it must be silent not merely for the sake of hearing, but for that of obeying. For obedience is the purpose and goal of hearing. Our return to obedience is indeed the aim of free grace. It is for this that it makes us free. … In its very character as unseaerchable the election of God demands as such our obedience. It is not proclaimed to us, nor does it reach us…if in and with that election there is no summons to obedience—quite irrespective of the accusation laid against us, the curse resting upon us, the death showing our whole life. From these very things the election of grace has, in fact, released us (30).

Whereas, therefore, in God’s freedom human decision is relativised, in God’s mystery it is required. Election calls for obedience and worship, silence and hearing. Yet obedience is not self-effort, merit or even confirmation of our election. It is acknowledgement; that is, the believer is called to an obedience already fulfilled, and therefore this call is gospel, a call to peace. God’s yes to the creature is total and eternal; God has claimed the creature as his own, and thus claimed, “it has no longer any need to justify itself, to defend itself, or to save itself. It may be silent and still before this mystery” (32).

3. That the divine righteousness of God both judges and saves us. God is vindicated by his righteousness in judging us, yet God’s righteousness is the faithfulness he expresses to the creature in mercy and forgiveness. God’s righteousness is viewed as God being true to God’s own self and purpose. His righteousness means that,

God does not acquiesce in the creature’s self-destruction as its own enemy. He sees to it that His own prior claim on the creature, and its own true claim to life is not rendered null and void. He cares for the creature as for His own possession. And in seeking its highest good, He magnifies his own glory. We cannot distinguish God’s kingly righteousness from his mercy (34).

Reading Karl Barth on Election (2)

Church Dogmatics Study EditionSelection: The Church Dogmatics II/2:12-24, The Orientation of the Doctrine of Election.

Barth then develops his next major point, namely, that the doctrine of election must be understood as gospel, as grace. There can be no parallel or coordination of election and reprobation otherwise the good news becomes “bad news” (12-18; the reference to “bad news” is on page 18).

The truth which must now occupy us, the truth of the doctrine of predestination, is first and last and in all circumstances the sum of the Gospel … Its content is instruction and elucidation, but instruction and elucidation which are to us a proclamation of joy. It is not a mixed message of joy and terror, salvation and damnation. … The election of grace is the sum of the Gospel—we must put it as pointedly as that. But more, the election of grace is the whole of the Gospel, the Gospel in nuce. It is the very essence of all good news (12-14).

Barth acknowledges that the doctrine “throws a shadow” (13), but insists that the No must be spoken only in service of the Yes which is the first and last word. For Barth, the doctrine must be understood unequivocally as gospel. Barth notes that this positive statement of the doctrine has been asserted throughout the tradition, which indicates its “evangelical character.” Barth provides a brief biblical overview of the nature of election as grace in which he insists that there are not two columns in the Book of Life, but one column only. Whence, then, the doctrine of “double predestination”? Barth traces the concept through Augustine, Aquinas, Isidore of Seville, Gottschalk, Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, and the Arminians.

The basic demand by which any presentation of the doctrine must be measured, and to which we ourselves must also conform, is this: that (negatively) the doctrine must not speak of the divine election and rejection as though God’s electing and rejecting were not quite different, as though these divine dealings did not stand in a definite hierarchical relationship the one with the other; and that (positively) the supremacy of the one and subordination of the other must be brought out so radically that the Gospel enclosed and proclaimed even in this doctrine is introduced and revealed as the tenor of the whole, so that in some way or other the Word of the free grace of God stands out even at this point as the dominating theme and the specific meaning of the whole utterance (18).

Barth identifies three central characteristics which all “serious” conceptions of the doctrine have in common: “they all find the nerve of the doctrine, the peculiar concern which forces them to present and assert it, in the fact that it characterizes the grace of God as absolutely free and thereby divine” (19). This grace is free, mysterious, and righteous (18-24). There is no cause for election other than God’s free grace. No works or righteousness or even faith are the ground for being elect. God’s grace and therefore his election is mysterious and incomprehensible, and so can be investigated only in faith and adoration. God cannot be called to account before the bar of human reason. Finally, the tradition has also insisted that in the exercise of his free and mysterious grace, God is also righteous. At this point, Barth qualifies the tradition insisting that only as we understand who God is can we agree that election is righteous. If the believer’s agreement is forced, if they harbor secret questions, doubts or protests about the nature of election, it is not true adoration: “We are not bowing before the caprice of a tyrant. Our submission cannot be such that it is accompanied by a still-remaining and ever-increasing inward complaint and resistance” (22). There can be no sacrifice of the intellect in this matter; conversely, we must allow our intellect to be instructed by God: the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.

Barth provides a number of citations from Calvin (23) in which Calvin argues that “God’s will is reason” because God is perfectly just and the fount of all justice. There is no higher court of appeal to which God must give account. God’s justice may be secret; it is also blameless.

For the will of God is so much the highest rule of justice, that whatever he wills must be considered just. So when it is asked why God acts in such-and-such a way, it must be replied, ‘Because he wills’. But if you go further, and ask why he has willed it, you ask for something greater and more sublime than the will of God, which cannot be found … We are not describing a lawless God, who is a law unto himself… The will of God is not only pure of all wickedness, but is the purest rule of perfection, even the law of all laws [Inst. iii.23.2].

If a mortal man pronounced that he willed or commanded that his will was to be reason, I would say his statement was tyrannical. But to extend that to God is a terrible sacrilege. For it is not permissible to attach anything improper to God, such as that desire springs up in him as it does in men. But by this merit of honour, it is attributed to his will that it be worthy of being reason, since it is the fount and rule of all justice (23; Congrég. C.R. 8, 115?).

Barth thus accepts these three primary characteristics of the doctrine of election in the tradition. To the degree the tradition expounded Scripture as testimony to the work of the triune God, it may be considered Christian theology, and their intention—if not their results—may be accepted (24). Therefore he concludes this discussion of the orientation of the doctrine by viewing these three central characteristics through the lens of the gospel (25-34). The election of God is not bare choice as though the concept of choice can be absolutized.

Reading Karl Barth on Election (1)

Church Dogmatics Study EditionSelection: The Church Dogmatics II/2:3-12, The Orientation of the Doctrine .

Barth begins his account of the doctrine of election by reviewing the method he has applied in his earlier volume on the doctrine of God; that is, he will allow only Jesus Christ as he is attested in Scripture to be the first and final word in theology. Having established his methodological point, he goes on to insist that the doctrine of God can never be a doctrine of God alone, or put differently, a doctrine of a solitary or isolated God. A Christian doctrine of God—made known in Jesus Christ—includes the reality that God stands in a definite relation ad extra such that we cannot speak of God correctly apart from this relation. This relation is the covenant between God and the man, Jesus Christ, and the people represented by him. God’s decision for this covenant is a divine self-determination such that we can no longer think of God in abstraction from this man, covenant and relation (5-9).

Jesus Christ is indeed God in His movement towards man, or, more exactly, in His movement towards the people represented in the one man Jesus of Nazareth, in His covenant with this people, in His being and activity amongst and towards this people. Jesus Christ is the decision of God in favour of this attitude or relation. He is Himself the relation. It is a relation ad extra, undoubtedly; for both the man and the people represented in Him are creatures and not God. But it is a relation which is irrevocable, so that once God has willed to enter into it, and has in fact entered into it, He could not be God without it. It is a relation in which God is self-determined (7).

The covenant relation established by God has two aspects. First, because God is the sovereign lord of the covenant it is a covenant of grace, and thus of love and freedom, the covenant of the God who loves in freedom. Second, as Lord of the covenant, God claims humanity as his covenant partner. Grace also rules, and those claimed by God are made responsible to God. As such, election issues in ethics. “Being responsible” is the nature and meaning of human existence.

God ordained and created him as partner in this covenant; God elected and called him to that position; and in that position He makes him responsible. How could God draw him to Himself, as He does, without making him responsible? God constitutes this “being responsible” the whole meaning of his existence (12).

Barth’s Relentless Questions

Barth at DeskOne of the features of Barth’s mind and work concerns the relentless nature of his questions by which he penetrates his topic, lays open its inner dynamic, and presses his criticism. Barth probes and interrogates his conversation partners by means of his questions. An example is seen in Church Dogmatics II/2:63-64. Barth has shown that the Reformers and their heirs want to look to Jesus as the ground of their assurance with respect to divine election. Strong statements are found in the tradition, by Luther, Melanchthon, Calvin, Bullinger, the Helvetic Confession, the Formula of Concord, and so on. Nevertheless Barth subjects the tradition to a dozen probing questions, although ultimately, they are all variations of the one central question:

In all these texts, however, (even those of Luther and the Lutherans) there is something unsatisfactory about the christological reference, factually important though it undoubtedly is. The reason for this is that notwithstanding all these earnest protestations the following question still remains unanswered: Is it the intention of these thinkers that serious theological attention should be paid to the assertion that the election is to be known in Jesus Christ? Does this assertion contain the first and last word on the matter, the word by which we must hold conclusively, and beyond which we must not conceive of any further word? Is it a fact that there is no other basis of election outside Jesus Christ? Must the doctrine as such be related to this basis and this basis only? Must it take account only of this basis? In this matter of election are we noetically to hold by Christ and Christ alone because ontically there is no election and no electing God outside him? Or is it rather the case that we are to understand this assertion merely as an impressively stated pastoral rule, a practical direction regarding the attitude which, rebus sic stantibus [as things stand], we ought to adopt towards this matter if we are not to be plunged into doubt or despair? Is it the case, in fact, that behind the pastoral (and in some measure the historico-psychological) truth that God’s election meets us and is revealed to us in Jesus Christ, there stands a higher truth which, for the sake of prudence and charity, must be withdrawn from the practical usage of the Church, a truth which cannot be denied or entirely suppressed, but which is so dangerous that it must be covered over and kept out of the reach of the curious like a kind of poison? Is it the case that, according to this higher and dangerous truth concealed for practical purposes in the background, while Christ is indeed the medium and instrument of the divine activity at the basis of the election, and to that extent He is the revelation of the election by which factually we must hold fast, yet the electing God Himself is not Christ but God the Father, or the triune God, in a decision which precedes the being and will and word of Christ, a hidden God, who as such made, as it were, the actual resolve and decree to save such and such men and to bring them to blessedness, and then later made, as it were, the formal or technical decree and resolve to call the elect and to bring them to that end by means of His Son, by means of His Word and Spirit? Is it the case, then, that in the divine election as such we have to do ultimately, not with a divine decision made in Jesus Christ, but with one which is independent of Jesus Christ and only executed by Him? Is it the case that that decision made in Jesus Christ by which we must hold fast is, in fact, only another and later and subordinate decision, while the first and true decision of election is to be sought—or if we follow the pastoral direction had better not be sought—in the mystery of the self-existent being of God, and of a decree made in the absolute freedom of this divine being?

Scripture on Sunday – James 2:5

JamesJames 2:5
Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him?

In this verse James extends the point of his little parable, by means of another question which, like the question in verse four, anticipates a positive answer. In fact, verses four through seven comprise a series of rhetorical questions, all calling for a positive response:

Have you not then made distinctions among yourselves?
(Have you not) become judges with evil thoughts?
Has not God chosen the poor in the world?
Are not the rich those who oppress you?
(Are not the rich those) who drag you into court?
(Are not the rich those) who blaspheme the honourable name?

The first two questions (v. 4) function to accuse the congregation of their wrong intentions and the dire consequences of these intentions in the assembly. The question in this verse provides a theological rationale which highlights their fault, while those in verses six and seven provide common sense reasons for abandoning their present form of behaviour. Thus James calls his “beloved brothers and sisters” to listen to his message (akousate, adelphoi mou agapētoi), and to learn afresh the ways in which God is at work in the world, and so also to learn afresh the ways in which God calls his people to conduct themselves in the world.

“Has not God chosen” (ouk ho theos exelexato) draws on a rich vein of Old Testament imagery with which his listeners would be familiar: God’s election of Israel as a small and insignificant community of slaves to be God’s own possession and heirs of his covenant promises (see Deuteronomy 6:6-9). This same text in Deuteronomy, like the New Testament also, insists that God’s election is grounded in God’s own goodness and love. That God has chosen “the poor in the world” (tous ptōchous tō kosmō) is not original with James, of course. Behind James’s words stand those of Jesus, the similarity being unmistakable:

Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God … But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation (Luke 6:20, 24).

Jesus’ beatitude addresses the poor with the promise of the kingdom, while also assailing the rich. This theme was also prominent in the song sung by Jesus’—and James’s—mother:

My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant…He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty (Luke 1:47-48, 51-53).

Of course it is not the case that Jesus excludes all rich persons and accepts only the poor. The rich may enter the kingdom of God—although such a difficult outcome is possible only with God (Mark 10:23-27). Nor is it the case that all the poor necessarily find their way into the kingdom. In 1:9-11 James contrasts the rich with the “lowly,” and in so doing draws on the Old Testament prophetic tradition of the Anawim in which the poor are those who are not simply economically destitute but who in their desperation also turn to God as to their only help and hope (see McKnight, 94-96, 194-195). According to Moo (91), “‘the poor’ became almost a technical term designating those who were both economically oppressed and spiritually inclined.”

God has chosen the poor that they may be “rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom” (plousious en pistei kai klēronomous tēs basileias). Here we may note that it is not simply the fact of being poor which in and of itself confers the blessing of the kingdom, for faith is also required. Nevertheless God has chosen the poor for just this reason. “Rich” (plousious) and “heirs” (klēronomous) are predicate accusatives and so provide further definition of “the poor” (tous ptōchous). The Greek text does not contain the verb “to be,” but Vlachos notes that this is often the case with predicate accusatives (73). Therefore “rich” and “heirs” are descriptive of what God intends for the poor. The term “kingdom” (tēs basileias) occurs only here in James, despite it being a favourite term in the teaching of Jesus. This kingdom remains in the future, “promised to those who love him” (hēs epēggeilato tois agapōsin auton). James has used identical language in 1:12 to speak also of the “crown of life” which God has promised to those who love him. Therefore the poor who ultimately inherit the kingdom are not only rich in faith but also among those who love God.

This is a deeply challenging verse, especially for those who like myself are extraordinarily rich—historically and globally, if not necessarily in the context of contemporary western culture. James’s blunt assertion that God has chosen the poor in the world runs counter to human expectation as Jesus also taught: “What is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God” (Luke 16:15). Thus, whereas in the world’s sight, the poor are merely ‘the poor,’ or are even despised and misused, in God’s sight they are valued and chosen. That the early Christians were drawn largely from amongst the poorer members of the society finds expression also in Paul who notes that God has chosen those who are foolish, weak, low and despised in the world, rather than those considered wise, powerful and noble (1 Corinthians 1:26-28).

If it is the case that God chooses the poor of this world, then the church must not shy away or recoil from a similar commitment to the poor. Indeed the church must be a place where the poor are welcomed and included, honoured, heard and valued. Late twentieth-century Roman Catholic theology developed the idea of a “preferential option for the poor,” which claims that there is in the Bible a discernible trend which gives preference to the well-being of the poorer and more vulnerable members of the society. This text in James is a clear example of that trend.

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.