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Theology Essay 3 – Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Election

October 15, 2011

The third essay in my theology portfolio. This time I’m looking at Karl Barth’s “Doctrine of Election”.

The comment here from the lecturer is that:

you don’t bring out the Trinitarian roots of what he’s saying. God’s expressiveness is directed towards being a source of self-gift to the world, and the focus of this is Israel, within which Jesus who embodies God’s love efficaciously,conveys the final form of God’s presence as love. Integration of Trinity and Christology is important, but you don’t bring that out.

I think the reason I didn’t deal with these things is that despite trying I honestly a) don’t understand what on earth this means, and b) don’t feel that I can write like that and retain intellectual honesty. So I present my take on Karl Barth…

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Karl Barth comes from a reformed perspective. He holds that we can only know (and talk) about God by considering the logos, or word of God. This comes in three forms: Jesus (through the incarnation), the Bible (the testimony of the life and teachings of Jesus), and preaching (exposition and exegesis of scripture). The first of these is primary, as it is God’s own expression or interpretation of himself in human form. Without reference to one or more of these forms of communication from God we cannot properly formulate a theology that talks about God.

Jesus is a man as we all are, and he is therefore accessible and knowable to us as a man. (Barth)

From this viewpoint Barth addresses the doctrine of election. He was reacting to the classical teachings of Augustine and Calvin. Calvin spoke of double predestination, in which God chose to save some of mankind, a mankind tainted by original sin.  He also therefore chose not to save the rest of mankind. Calvin admits that this theory should appal us, but holds that it is not a cruel doctrine. God is merciful to those he chooses to save and is just to those he chooses not to save, justly punishing them for the sins of which they are guilty. This latter argument was also used by Augustine, and it will be used in adapted form by Barth.

The passage central to Barth’s doctrine of election come from Ephesians 1:4: ‘…he chose us in him [Christ] before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight’. Comparing this to the doctrines of election proposed by Augustine and Calvin, Barth pointed out that they take the central role away from the person around whom the doctrine should revolve; the person of Christ.

The message of predestination, the way God expresses it to us, is through Christ, and any doctrine of election must refer to Christ or else be grounded on speculation.

Even as the object of predestination, even as elected man, Jesus Christ must still be understood as truly the beginning of all God’s ways and works. (Barth, Church Dogmatics, II,1,p120)

There is obviously a layer of ambiguity in the nature of Gods expression to us through Jesus – how can man ever fully comprehend the divine? Nevertheless, if we want to understand God this is the route that we must take.

‘Jesus Christ is the electing God; Jesus Christ is the elected man’. How are we to understand this simple statement that sums up Barth’s view of God and election? As noted above, if we wish to understand the way God is, we must understand the way God expresses himself. Both of these feed into the other, in a way similar to that proposed by Rahner (the example of a handshake – it is a gesture of respect occasioned by my respect, possible only because of my respect but without which my respect would be different). Unlike Rahner though, Barth tells us that we do not experience the way God is at all times. Instead we experience it primarily though Christ. He would have us believe that we cannot have knowledge of God until the act of God makes us it’s subject, and that the only event in which we may become the subject is the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus, through which, he will argue, we are elected.

Before the creation (c.f. Ephesians 1:4) God chose us, and he chose us through Christ. Christ is therefore the self-revealing act of God, the self-gift, through which he made his choice. Christ is ‘the electing God’. But through Christ God took on the sins of mankind. Jesus, and therefore God, suffered for these sins. God’s grace is thus revealed by the act of his taking onto himself the judgement which is deserved by man for his sins.

The rejection which all men incurred, the wrath of God under which all men lie, the death which all men must die, God in His love for me transfers from all eternity to Him in whom He loves and elects them, and whom He elects at their head and in their place. (Barth, Church Dogmatics II/2 p.123)

Why and how does God do this? It is traditional to use language of God that talks about what we think of as his positive attributes. Power, mercy, knowledge. These are things that we can all at least conceive as being present in God, as they do not signify a lack but a possession. Barth says that ‘God is always God, even in his humiliation’. In the words of MacQuarrie:

Barth’s point is that humility and weakness are as fundamental to the being of God as are power and transcendence, and it is not necessary (indeed, it is absurd) to think that we have to deny one set of characteristics to make way for the other. (Jesus Christ in Modern Though, p286)

It may seem contradictory, but Barth seems to be arguing that it is in God’s nature to be both powerful and weak, high and lowly, and so on. It could therefore be part of God’s nature to forgive man eternally, to make the eternal decision to elect man through Christ, because at the same time as being perfectly just (which means that he has to make a judgement on mankind for the fall into sin that is inevitable) he is perfectly forgiving. He can show us justice and mercy at the same time. There are further issues when we consider that God is making an eternal forgiving act before the sins which he is forgiving are committed. Is this saying that no matter what sins we commit that we are forgiven? Does God know the terrible acts that will be committed by man and yet still forgive them? This seems to be a questions that cannot be ignored, for what place is there for ethics in a world in which all sins are forgiven ahead of time?

Whatever the answers to these questions, to Barth it is clear that the eternal act is carried out by choosing to become human in Jesus and take upon himself the sins that he is both judging and forgiving.

Before all created reality, before all being and becoming in time, before time itself, in the pre-temporal eternity of God, the eternal divine decision as such has as its object and content the existence of this one created being, the man Jesus of Nazareth, and the work of this man in His life and death, His humiliation and exaltation, His obedience and merit. (Barth, CD II,2 p116)

God elects man by electing Christ. He is merciful in his bestowal of grace, and just by ensuring that the judgement that is required to be made of our sins is carried out, but carried out through Christ. ‘…from all eternity God sees us in His Son as sinners to whom He is gracious’. We therefore see that God’s election of Christ transfers to us, and that we are elected through him, with the doctrine of vicarious substitution used to confirm the existence of the judgement for which man is destined by sin. As Barth puts it:

It is in being gracious in this way that God sets forth His own glory. In is in the election of the man Jesus that his decision to be gracious is made. (Barth, CD II, 1, p 121)

In regard to sin, Barth points out that ‘Satan…is the shadow which accompanies the light of the election of Jesus Christ’ (CD II,1,p122). We are not able to resist the power that evil has in the world. Unlike Jesus, who withstood the temptations in Matthew 4, men will never be able to resist, hence taking upon himself the ‘rejection that rests upon his temptation and corruption’. Only God is able to reject Satan, but through the incarnation Jesus is also able to make this rejection. Jesus is for all men, so God has, in place of man, elected one who has rejected evil. ‘He, the Elect, is appointed to check and defeat Satan on behalf of all those that are elected “in Him”, on behalf of the descendants and confederates of Adam now beloved of God’ (CD II,1,p123).

There is ambiguity in the language that Barth uses. How is Jesus both elected and elector? This is part of the problem of talking of a doctrine of election through incarnation in a triune God. However, if we want to be able to talk about it at all, which surely is important, we must accept these difficulties and ambiguities or risk remaining silent.

Is this doctrine of election a universal doctrine? By putting the quotation from Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians into its context it would appear that it shouldn’t be. For instance, Ephesians 1:12 says that the ‘we’ or ‘us’ being discussed in the passage refers to those ‘who were the first to hope in Christ’, suggesting that it is a doctrine of election that gives election to all Christians rather than all humans.

Barth, however, says that:

‘There is, then, no background, no decretum absolutum, no mystery of the divine good-pleasure, in which predestination might just as well be man’s rejection. When we look into the innermost recesses of the divine good-pleasure, predestination is the non-rejection of man.’ (CD)

This is strongly suggestive of a universal predestination for salvation. He goes further:

‘…in God’s decree at the beginning there is for man only a predestination which corresponds to the perfect being of God Himself: a predestination to His Kingdom and to blessedness and life. Any other predestination is merely presumed and unreal … not the divine predestination fulfilled in God’s eternal decree.’ (CD)

It would appear then that Barth holds the following position: God, in his eternal decision, created man that he might be gracious to them, and showed his mercy by electing us all through Christ. This gets us away from the mysterious decretum absolutum, which is a major problem for traditional doctrines of election. Why does God decide to save some and not others? Barth avoids the idea that God is in some way arbitrary. He avoids making this absolute decree somehow more important than Jesus, whose incarnation he takes to be the definitive act of God.

To summarise, Jesus is both elector and elected. He elects all of humanity by his existence, and we are elected as he is elected. God freely chooses to give us his grace, but we are not able to say whether or not this grace is given universally; it is a question that we should not answer yes or no to. We should instead hope.

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