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

Barth’s concern in his treatment on election is that election should be good news – gospel – or, what Barth calls is another place, ‘joyous news’. Thus does Barth begin his chapter on election in II/2: ‘The doctrine of election is the sum of the Gospel because of all words that can be said or heard it is the best; that God elects man; that God is for man too the One who loves in freedom … Its function is to bear basic testimony to eternal, free and unchanging grace as the beginning of all the ways and works of God’. Here Barth is following Calvin – and, according to Muller, the Reformed tradition more generally at least up until 1650 – who repeatedly stressed that we look to Christ as the assurance of our election. Here Calvin is as adamant as Barth. Where Calvin – and the Reformed tradition – is silent, however, is in how the question of reprobation – the shadow side of election – also relates to Christ. Holmes has suggested that the weakness in Calvin’s account of predestination is not that election is separate from Christ (which, as I have just said, it is not), but that ‘the doctrine of reprobation is detached, Christless and hidden in the unsearchable purposes of God. As such it bears no comparison with the doctrine of election, but remains something less than a Christian doctrine’. Holmes goes on to suggest that Calvin’s shortcoming is not that he reserved an equal stature – a double decree – to God’s ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ in election, but that he has ‘almost no room for the doctrine of reprobation in his account’; ‘the “No” does not really enter his thinking’, thus leading to an asymmetry between the two decrees and so, as Holmes suggests, ‘fails to be gospel’. This contrasts with Barth’s christological theology of reprobation. Holmes helpfully summarises Barth’s position thus:

In willing to be gracious in the particular way God in fact wills to be gracious, the Incarnation of the Divine Son, there is both a ‘Yes’ and a ‘No’, election and reprobation. God elects for humanity life, salvation, forgiveness, hope; for himself he elects death, perdition, even, as the Creed has said, hell. This self-reprobation of God is indeed the primary referent of the doctrine of election, in that God’s determination of himself is formally if not materially more basic than his determination of the creature, and so is considered first by Barth. In the eternal election of grace, which is to say in Jesus Christ, God surrenders his own impassibility, embraces the darkness that he was without – and indeed impervious to – until he willed that it should be otherwise … The apostle put it more succinctly: “He became sin for us.” This is the full content of the divine judgement, of the ‘No’ that is spoken over the evil of the world and of human beings. God elects for himself the consequences of that ‘No’, in saying ‘Yes’ to, that is, in electing, us. That is the whole content of the double decree, the whole content of the ‘Yes’ and the ‘No’ that God pronounces as one word, the whole content the election of grace.

Concerned that his own tradition had at this point replaced Jesus Christ with a decretum absolutum (as there is no Wikipedia reference to the absolutum it must not exist), Barth asked, ‘Is it a fact that there is no other basis of election outside Jesus Christ? Must the doctrine as such be related to this basis and this basis only?’ Because of Jesus Christ, Barth was able to speak of God’s ‘No’ as gospel also.

On the actuality of predestination, Gockel questions how useful Barth’s grammar regarding predestination as a present event is. He suggests that God’s ‘eternally preceding’ decision is ‘the mystery of all historical events’ and that it does not have to imply an ongoingness of the decision itself within history, given God’s predestining election of Jesus Christ. Gockel helpfully suggests that ‘a less actualistic view of predestination could more clearly emphasise the significance of the historical appearance of Jesus Christ and thus dispel the impression that Barth tears apart the “eternal content” and the “temporal form” of election’ (p. 185).

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