Barth’s Doctrine of Election

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I’ve never been very interested in the doctrine of election, and this is probably due to the fact that I was exposed to rather appalling variants of predestination advanced by evangelical neo-Calvinists. However, reading Altizer convinced me that it was a doctrine that was foundational for all major theologians, not simply Calvin. It is also interesting to note that Barth’s doctrine of election is a joyous one, not an offensive truth that he felt compelled to propound. The major revision he makes is that God is simultaneously both the electing God and the elected man. He is both the rejecting God and the rejected man. This is not grounded in God’s incomprehensible, mysterious will but rather in Jesus Christ himself. Jesus Christ is the electing God and the elected man. Jesus Christ is the rejecting God and the rejected man. On Golgotha, Jesus’ rejection is completely on stage for all to witness. He is the God-forsaken man for us. He is the lamb slain before the foundation of the world so we are not subjected to God’s wrath.

There’s much less offensive in this doctrine, and the amount of work Barth does to argue for this position is impressive (~800 pages). Now, that I’m beginning to study III/1, which is really just an exegesis of Gen 1 & 2, looking back over the first two volumes of Church Dogmatics, II/2 is by far the most enjoyable part thus far. Of course, I’m still highly anticipating reading IV, but first I’ll have to make my way through III.

Here’s a two quotes that nicely represent this doctrine:

“Who is the Elect? He is always the one who “was dead and is alive again” who “was lost and is the found?” (Lk. 1524). That the elected man Jesus had to suffer and die means no more and no less than that in becoming man God makes Himself responsible for man who became His enemy, and that He takes upon Himself all the consequences of man’s action – his rejection and his death. This is what is involved in the self-giving of God. This is the radicalness of His grace. God must let righteousness reign, and He wills to do so. Against the aggression of the shadow-world of Satan which is negated by Him and which exists only in virtue of this negation, God must and will maintain the honour of His creation, the honour of man as created and ordained for Him, and His own honour. God cannot and will not acquiesce in the encroachment of this shadow-world upon the sphere of His positive will, an encroachment made with the fall of man. On the contrary, it must be His pleasure to see that Satan and all that has its source and origin in him are rejected. But this means that God must and will reject man as he is in himself. And He does so. But He does it in the person of the elected man Jesus. And in Him He loves man as he is in himself. He elects Jesus, then, as the head and in the place of all others. The wrath of God, the judgment and the penalty, fall, then, upon Him. And this means upon His own Son, upon Himself: upon Him, and not upon those whom He loves and elects “in Him;” upon Him, and not upon the disobedient. Why not upon the disobedient? Why this interposition of the just for the unjust by which in some incomprehensible manner the eternal Judge becomes Himself the judged? Because His justice is a merciful and for this reason a perfect justice. Because the sin of the disobedient is also their need, and even while it affronts Him it also moves Him to pity. Because He knows quite well the basis of Satan’s existence and the might and force with which sinners were overthrown and fell in the negative power of His own counsel and will. Because in this powerlessness of sinners against Satan He sees their guilt, but in their guilt He sees also their powerlessness. Because he knows quite well that those who had no strength to resist Satan are even less able to bear and suffer the rejection which those who hear Satan and obey him merit together with him. Because from all eternity He knows “whereof we are made” (Ps. 10314). That is why He intervened on our behalf in His Son. That is why He did no less. He did not owe it to us to do it. For it was not He but we ourselves in our culpable weakness who delivered us up to Satan and to divine wrath and rejection. And yet God does it because from all eternity He loves and elects us in His Son, because from all eternity he sees us in His Son as sinners to whom He is gracious. For all those, then, whom God elects in His Son, the essence of the free grace of God consists in the fact that in this same Jesus God who is the Judge takes the place of the judged, and they are fully acquitted, therefore, from sin and its guilt and penalty. Thus the wrath of God and the rejection of Satan and his kingdom no longer have any relevance for them. On the contrary, the wrath of God and the rejection of Satan, the free course of divine justice to which God Himself has subjected Himself on their behalf, has brought them to freedom. In the One in whom they are elected, that is to say, in the death which the Son of God has died for them, they themselves have died as sinners. And that means their radical sanctification, separation and purification for participation in a true creaturely independence, and more than that, for the divine sonship of the creature which the grace for which from all eternity they are elected in the election of the man Jesus” (CD II/2, 124-5)

“If the teachers of predestination were right when they spoke always of a duality, of election and reprobation, or predestination to salvation or perdition, the life or death, then we may say already that in the election of Jesus Christ which is the eternal will of God, God has ascribed to man the former, election, salvation and life; and to Himself He has ascribed the latter, reprobation, perdition, and death” (CD II/2, 162-3).

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6 Responses to “Barth’s Doctrine of Election”

  1. Robert Minto Says:

    And what do you think of this version of election?

  2. Jeremy Says:

    I find it to be much more persuasive than the way some people present Calvin’s doctrine. Say what you will about Barth, but I find his Christocentric theology to be consistent and honest. I really like he grounds everything in Christ. He won’t let any other idea or determination take precedence over God’s self-revelation in Christ. I like this version of election more than others, but I disagree with his theory of atonement. Christ as the propitiation of God’s wrath is something I struggle with mightily. I resonate more with liberation theologians’ understanding of the atonement. I know you’re more familiar with early church fathers than I am, but I’d like to know more about how the early church fathers understood the atonement. Especially since I was raised in such a religious environment in which one metaphor (i.e. penal substitution) was the only correct interpretation of the cross.

    Honestly, I tend to shy away from the providential, sovereign God. I also had issues in II/2 with his interpretations of Romans 13, and the relationship between political leaders and God’s will. Basically the Christians duty to recognize leaders are only given their power by God. Those are the things I cannot get behind.

    Despite some of these reservations, Volume II was amazing. Specifically II/2 had some great exegesis especially on Judas. Also, Barth explores election in the Hebrew Bible, which was equally fascinating.

  3. Robert Minto Says:

    I basically agree with your position on Barth’s version of election.

    I also really resonate with your reaction to a youthful religious environment where only one metaphor was admitted for atonement. Same experience here. I try to keep Hazlitt’s percept in mind, however, that what everybody most loves to hate are their old friends, old opinions, and old self. While I, too, struggle with the notion of propitiation, I’m not yet willing to write it off because of my emotional rejection of it. I feel like the alien-ness of biblical language about God’s wrath is a projection of my own upon it: I mean, the most compelling accounts of that wrath that I’ve encountered, in places like Moltmann’s and Bruegemann’s books, as well as in early 20th century English theologians of passibility and in other places, have tied that wrath into a sort of psychological portrait of the passional God which jives very well (I think) with the Exodus-God of liberation theology: A God still and always working out his own inner life, a God who may almost be said to have gone too far in his cursings at times, but then to have brought about deliverance from his own crimes of passion. Uncareful language there, on my part, but I’m just reflecting on my own attempts to integrate propitiation as one part of a much larger and many-faceted concept of atonement which is itself contextualized by the “psychological portrait” of God given in the biblical narrative, a necessarily tentative and unrefined attempt at this juncture.

    Anyway, I appreciate your evaluation of Barth and I look forward to continuing to observe your thought-development on the subjects of election and atonement.

  4. Jeremy Says:

    One of my problems with that atonement theory is the absence of Satan. I think the idea of liberation from sin, evil, the powers and Satan is something that needs to be rescued to more fully represent the Christian reading of the cross.

    That’s an interesting idea about wrath and its importance in the portrayal of a passionate God of justice (side note, i need to study Schelling’s theology). For me, I’m feeling more and more the need to revisit the Hebrew Bible more intensively to help better understand the depiction of God that is often so offensive and difficult to reconcile with the God revealed in Christ. . I’d encourage you to watch this, I found it very moving and challenging: http://tinyurl.com/2d848rz

    I’d be curious to hear your thoughts.

    With regard to my Christian education, I’m finding Barth’s theology to be very liberating. The way God was depicted to me (Lawgiver, Judge), and especially his role in the atonement (demanding Jesus’ blood), made me often think of God as the wholly Other alien God who didn’t seem like the Father of Jesus Christ. Barth’s refusal to speak of God independent of Christ is certainly challenging, and would make one raised in that environment revisit their presuppositions about God.

  5. Robert Minto Says:

    “God is not good, he has only been on our side.”

    That clip was powerful. Thanks for sharing. What I’m exploring in my thoughts about interpreting God’s wrath psychologically rather than ontologically — ie., as the effect of his personality, his relationships, rather than as the effect of his somehow embodying some vast, terrible, alien, and arbitrary “justice” — would suggest a response to the clip that takes as it’s starting point the comment which I quoted above. In other words, in interpreting God’s wrath, perhaps one should not start with what has on the whole been retrospectively affirmed — that God is “good,” — but with what was always given, first and foremost, in the Hebrew Bible — that God has been on a side. I’m interested to see what permutations such a reading would cause in the question of theodicy, a reading which understood God’s violence as partisan, rather than deducing from his power an impartiality. What prompted this line of thought for me — apart from the theologians I mentioned above — was how, in moments like that so dramatically portrayed in the clip, people are more likely to sympathize with their oppressors than with God. What is it about our conception of God that allows us to so easily displace hatred upon him? — My thought is that the impartiality we deduce for him, makes him seem more culpable than a human oppressor; but does impartiality follow from immense power? Like I said, however, I’m only roughly grasping after some kind of insight in this regard, so things like the clip you shared provoke in me only questioning of their questions, rather than answers.

    I would just add one thing about your comment on reconciling the God of the two parts of the bible — the child-killing God of the Old Testament isn’t so different from the “God revealed in Christ” in Barth’s theory of atonement, when one keeps in mind that what the latter is, for Barth, is a God who kills his own child… In other words, if one were to take a Barthian interpretation of the NT, then the question of theodicy wouldn’t be how to reconcile two Gods, but how deal with the continuing, unchanging violence and apparent moral insanity of the horribly consistent God…

  6. Jeremy Says:

    Interesting. I like the idea of questioning the theological presuppositions that make these type of conclusions possible. I think the impartiality also raises the question of how to reconcile the notion between God’s partiality with Israel, with the oppressed, with poor and God’s universal love for all man.

    I also agree with your point about Barth’s understanding of the God in the Greek Bible as killing his own son. Of course, when I hear things construed that way I’m only reminded of the many feminist critiques of atonement theories that make God seem like an abusive, tyrant, child abuser. Those critiques of course also only reinforce male privilege and can have devastating effects socially. As someone who has worked with battered women, I can say that this type of understanding of Christ’s sacrifice paves the way for really terrible social consequences. Christ as the silent sufferer who absorbs the abuse of the oppressive Father does not translate well into practice. i”d especially suggest Delores Williams book Sisters in the Wilderness.

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