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

Barth’s revision of the Reformed doctrine of election is developed further in his so-called Göttingen Dogmatics where he punctuates the teleological ordering of election and reprobation. The real purpose of God’s predestinating act is always election – not rejection – even in rejection. While the reprobation is real as the shadow side of election, it is never God’s final word. God’s final word is Jesus Christ and in him every promise of God finds its ‘Yes’ (2 Cor 1:18–20). ‘Rejection does not take place for its own sake but in revelation of the righteousness of God in order that God’s mercy might be manifested in his election, and in order that in it all, though in this irreversible order, God himself might be known and praised’. In other words, God’s judgement is never divorced from God’s grace and can never be recognised apart from ‘the cross, the judgment, the condemnation in which we stand’; the way of predestination therefore leads us ‘by way of condemnation – indeed, by the way of hell itself – to salvation and life’. We will return to this below in our discussion of Barth’s Church Dogmatics II/2.

Gockel concludes his discussion of Barth’s Göttingen work by surmising that Barth’s doctrine of election ‘becomes more actualistic and less speculative, while still not christocentric’. Also ‘Barth stops short of eschatological universalism, and his consistent emphasis on God’s freedom as well as the assertion that “all are at every moment under the divine Either–Or” should be taken seriously’ (p. 155).

The picture that Gockel paints is that in both the Römerbrief and the Göttingen Dogmatics, Barth has developed a ‘Schleiermacherian reconstruction’ of the doctrine of election by means of the idea of a single divine decree towards life. Although Schleiermacher understands the Creator-creature relationship differently to Barth, they both hold that the single divine decree is to be understood in the context of the historical decision between faith and unbelief. For both of them (at this point), the doctrine of election remains fundamentally theocentric and universal, with a focus on the graced-initiative of the divine act which involves a teleological movement in time from reprobation to election, the former serving the latter, and the latter qualifying the former. Above all, the focus for both theologians is on ‘the predestining God’ rather than ‘individual predestined human beings’ (p. 157). Given this, it is surprising that Gockel introduces his argument with the announcement that it is ‘precisely the anthropocentric outlook of traditional views’ which motivated not only Barth’s but also Schleiermacher’s ‘search for a new approach’ to election (p. 12).

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