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

In his Der Römerbrief, Barth raises two objections against the Augustinian formulation, which he regards as ‘a “mythologizing” construction’ (p. 108). First, Barth rejects the notion that predestination can be explained in terms of cause and effect. While the human act of faith happens within a familiar historical context, its origin always lies with God: ‘The act of faith does not occur when a human being has recognized God but when God has recognized a human being’ (p. 108). Barth’s point: ‘God wants to be known through God’. Secondly, Barth discards the attribution of election and reprobation to ‘predetermined quantities of individual persons, since this neglects that God’s eternal predestination is related to humankind as a whole and is not a one-time event but occurs time and again in history when a human being is addressed by God’s Word’ (p. 109). The driving issue here for Barth, as in his whole doctrine of election, is the divine freedom.

For Barth, the key verse for understanding Romans, and Christian theology in general, is 11:32, ‘God enclosed everyone in disobedience, in order to show mercy on everyone’. This verse affirms that the content of God’s predestination is God’s unconditional mercy. More radically, Barth contends that Paul’s claim suggests a modification – though not a rejection – of the notion of double predestination. Double predestination does not require rejection so long as we are clear that it refers to a movement, to the ‘teleology by which God’s salvific act is directed, namely, from reprobation to election’ (p. 113). For Barth, reprobation is never the goal. ‘God’s Yes shines even into the last depth of His No, precisely because the latter is so radical, because it is the divine No’. Reprobation exists therefore ‘only as the shadow of the light of election’.

Gockel contends that there is a distinct echo of Schleiermacher’s doctrine of election in Barth’s own early revision of the doctrine. In Der Römerbrief, Barth accentuates the dialectical unity of God’s decree: ‘God’s reprobation (of the elect) and God’s election (of the reprobate) are “unintuitably one and the same in God”’ (p. 118). Gockel identifies two central aspects concerning the relation between reprobation and election for Barth. First, the possibility of reprobation is overcome eternally in God. Adam’s old world really is surpassed by Christ’s new world. Second, the individual outcome of the two-fold possibility of unbelief and belief is not determined by God before time but rather, in the freedom of God, is the event in which God addresses the creature in time. The content or purpose of such an address is qualified by the ‘turn from reprobation to election’ in God, which expresses the one eternal will of God for humanity. Any duality here of judgement and grace is the duality of God’s unified action, an action which affects all human beings alike, and is determined by God’s redemptive will revealed in Christ’s death and resurrection. The church and the world, therefore, ‘stand under the same promise and the same judgment [which] makes it impossible to conceive them as two separate groups of persons’ (p. 125). Even as early as his Romans commentary, Barth maintained a hopeful universalism grounded in the freedom and love of God leading to the priority of election over reprobation: ‘reprobation has been overcome and absorbed by election’. Christ’s work ‘entails the hope that the duality between faith and history does not preclude the possibility of an eventual restoration of humankind and a return “into the unity with God, which is now and here completely lost”’ (p. 130). Barth’s emphasis here is that the original unity of God and humanity (a notion abandoned in the Göttingen lectures) is not superseded by judgement. Judgement, rather, is practical, leading to a re-union of human and divine righteousness.

Gockel observes that the relationship of the historical appearance of Jesus Christ to the determination of God’s will remains unclear in Barth’s theology, and his emphasis on the original unity leads to similar problems to Schleiermacher’s notion of absolute dependence. Furthermore, when Barth ‘asserts that God’s will is revealed in Jesus Christ who personifies God’s universal faithfulness and righteousness, it remains unclear how the eternal history between God and humankind is related to the history of Jesus Christ’ (p. 131).

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