Tag Archives: Gospel of John

Reading Karl Barth on Election (10)

Church Dogmatics Study EditionSelection: The Church Dogmatics II/2:94-110, Jesus Christ, Electing and Elected.

It is necessary to revisit these pages already treated to attend Barth’s astounding claim that Jesus Christ—the man—was in the beginning with God. How can the man Jesus Christ be in the beginning with God? Is it not more correct to speak of the Son, or of the eternal Logos?

Barth’s remarkable claim rests especially on his exegesis of John 1:1-2. In this seminal text, the Word is before and above all creaturely reality, standing outside the series of created things. It precedes all being and all time—like God himself (95). This Word which was in the beginning “with” God and which “was” God participates absolutely in the divine mode of being, and thus in all the perfections of the one divine being. Barth then asks, “But who or what is the Word whose predicates are declared in Jn. 11?”

As is well known, in the Johannine Prologue the concept recurs only once (v. 14), and in the rest of the Gospel it does not recur at all in this sense. In the presentation as a whole its character is obviously that of a stop-gap. It is a preliminary indication of the place where later something or someone quite different will be disclosed. … In Jn. 11 the reference is very clear: λόγος is unmistakably substituted for Jesus. His is the place which the predicates attributed to the Logos are meant at once to mark off, to clear and to reserve. … It is the x in an equation whose value we can know only when the equation has been solved. (96, 97).

Barth continues his argument by insisting that the meaning of verse 2, “the same was in the beginning with God,” also points forward to the one who fills the position of the Logos: Jesus Christ. “We have no need to project anything into eternity, for at this point eternity is time, i.e., the eternal name has become a temporal name, and the divine name a human. It is of this name that we speak” (98). Jesus Christ, then, is the eternal Son, and Barth finds confirmation of this in a range of New Testament texts (98-99).

If this is true, then … in this person we are called upon to recognise the beginning of the Word and decree and election of God, the conclusive and absolute authority in respect of the aim and origin of all things. And this authority we must acknowledge not merely as something which is like God, but as God Himself, since God Himself in all His ways and works willed wholly and utterly to bear this name, and actually does bear it … We are not thinking or speaking rightly of God Himself if we do not take as our starting-point the fact which should be both “first and last”: that from all eternity God elected to bear this name. Over against all that is really outside God, Jesus Christ is the eternal will of God, the eternal decree of God and the eternal beginning of God (99).

It is clear why Barth makes this move: if Jesus Christ is the eternal decree of God there can be no decretum absolutum. “In trying to understand Jesus Christ as the electing God we abandon this tradition, but we hold fast by Jn. 11-2” (104). In an extraordinary statement Barth makes clear what he is saying:

The subject of this decision is the triune God—the Son of God no less than the Father and the Holy Spirit. And the specific object of it is the Son of God in His determination as the Son of Man, the God-Man, Jesus Christ, who is as such the eternal basis of the whole divine election (110; note that the English translation omits a word found in the Die Kirchliche Dogmatik, where Barth refers to “the pre-existing God-Man…”)

Jesus Christ is not simply pre-existent in a general or abstract way, but absolutely, as the primal decision of God to be God only in this union with humanity in Jesus Christ. Obviously he is not pre-existent in terms of his flesh, but in anticipation, determined for incarnation.

Barth establishes his ground-breaking doctrine of election on his exegesis of this critical text, supported by other New Testament passages, and discussions of the church fathers. His meditation on and exegesis of John 1 is essential to understand his doctrine.