Matthias Gockel on Barth and Schleiermacher on the Doctrine of Election: A Review – Part I

‘That God may have mercy upon all’: A Review of Barth and Schleiermacher on the Doctrine of Election: A Systematic-Theological Comparison. By Matthias Gockel. Pp. viii+229. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. ISBN 978 0 19 920322 2. £45.

As promised not so recently, my next few posts will be dedicated to reviewing Gockel’s book, Barth and Schleiermacher on the Doctrine of Election. Because my review is rather lengthy (and because some wise guy thinks that the ideal post should be quite short ), I will break it up into 10 posts. I hope that most who started the ride will still be holding on at the end.

Karl Barth’s vituperative criticisms of Friedrich Schleiermacher are no secret, and no short mileage has been made by theologians on the apparent division between the two. In Matthias Gockel’s latest offering (a revised version of his 2002 doctoral dissertation completed at Princeton under Barth scholar Bruce McCormack) he joins Robert Sherman and others in enriching, with renewed sophistication, our understanding of the relationship between Barth and Schleiermacher, challenging traditional evaluations that ‘liberal theology’ and ‘dialectical theology’ stand in irreconcilable opposition.

Rather than attempt to cover a multi-dimensional canvas with broad strokes, Gockel restricts his inquiry to an incisive and cogent comparison of the development of the doctrine of election in the two thinkers. Without proposing any theory of historical dependence, Gockel contends that the divergence between these two commanding Reformed theologians does not stem from irreconcilable starting points but rather from the indispensability of God’s grace. Gockel convincingly argues that ‘Barth’s theology is not just a repudiation of Schleiermacher but an expansion of his predecessor’s work in a new framework’ (13). He also shows us that while the Swiss theologian’s evaluation of ‘the father of modern theology’ is ‘sometimes negative, sometimes positive and often ambiguous’ (p. 9) Barth was not always a reliable interpreter of his own thought, nor always consistent in his criticisms of others.

Gockel’s thesis is that the doctrine of election in Barth’s early theology bears a close resemblance to Schleiermacher’s own theo-centric position. Barth’s theology however, from 1936 onwards, undergoes a radical christological revisioning of the earlier position. Gockel begins his survey and assessment of Schleiermacher by turning to Schleiermacher’s revision of the doctrine in his 1819 essay, ‘On the Doctrine of Election’. Gockel helpfully, albeit briefly, situates Schleiermacher’s early contribution on election in the context of the ecclesiastical union between the Lutheran and Reformed churches in Prussia in 1817. Central to the preceding union were the debates over the Lord’s Supper and the doctrine of election. The crucial point over the latter concerned ‘the indispensability of divine grace for … conversion and the question whether human beings can accept or resist God’s grace by their own free choice’ (p. 18). Schleiermacher’s most creative contribution to the discussion was his notion of an undivided and unconditional ‘single divine will and decree which effects [both] faith and unbelief’ (p. 26). He argues that the older paradigm of a two-fold divine will of election and reprobation is ‘as meaningless as the question why God made human beings in the way they were made’ (p. 29). The elect, Schleiermacher contends, are those who are ‘regenerated and begin their religious self-development’ (p. 30). While the remainder of persons are for now spiritually dead and ‘not yet members of the kingdom of God’ (p. 34) they are included in God’s love and so ‘they never loose the ability to be revived’ (p. 30). Gockel notes that the notion of the single decree ‘emphasises the unity of the divine attributes and helps to clarify key issues not only in the debate over election but also in the doctrine of God’ (p. 34).

Schleiermacher’s revision of the doctrine of election, articulated in the 1819 essay, is more fully developed in his Der christliche Glaube (1821–22) within the bounds of a single divine decree of universal predestination to salvation in Christ, and systematically located in ecclesiology. Gockel notes that the starting-point of the discussion of election, for Schleiermacher, is the ‘dilemma that arises from the simultaneous existence of believers and non-believers, on the one hand, and the benevolent divine will towards all human beings in Christ’s redemptive work, on the other hand’ (p. 101). Schleiermacher’s response is to insist that the ‘divine will is identical with the work of redemption in and through the person of Christ’ (p. 100).

Schleiermacher rejects any idea of two separate foreordained groups of persons – a double-predestination – and the notion that one group might be eternally excluded from the benefits of Christ’s work. Such ideas, he maintains, betray the general character of redemption and the universal mission of the church. God has one will, and that will is identical with who God is, and what God does in Jesus Christ. Humanity – believers and unbelievers alike – are the object of God’s predestinating will of salvation in Christ. Despite the temporary reprobation of some, ‘God sees all human beings, not only the believers, in Christ’ (p. 102). In light of this reality, the church is called to live, order its life after, and bear universal witness to, the divine decision.

Gockel concludes his examination of Schleiermacher by noting that despite Schleiermacher’s christologically-motivated affirmation of general redemption and rejection of eternal reprobation, his overall construction remains theocentric: ‘it is grounded in the belief in God the almighty creator, even though ecclesiology is its context and christology its background’ (p. 103).

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