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

In answering the question, ‘Will, then, all people be saved in the end?’, Lutheran scholar Carl Braaten has reminded us that ‘We do not already know the answer. The final answer is stored up in the mystery of God’s own future. All he has let us know in advance is that he will judge the world according to the measure of his grace and love made known in Jesus Christ, which is ultimately greater than the fierceness of his wrath or the hideousness of our sin’. So Barth noted in The Humanity of God, ‘This much is certain, that we have no theological right to set any sort of limits to the loving-kindness of God which has appeared in Jesus Christ. Our theological duty is to see and understand it as being still greater than we had seen before’.

The criticisms and their implications raised by Gockel will no doubt continue to be a point of dispute – a dialectic – among readers of Barth for the foreseeable future. Those with an interest in the debate more generally over universalism would be well served in reading Gockel’s fine book. However, it ought to be noted that those who are already convinced that Schleiermacher’s and (early) Barth’s doctrine of election remains the most tenable proposal will only find further material here to bolster their conviction. To those who remain unconvinced, Gockel offers little argument here to change their mind.

Gockel’s work fills a notable gap in Schleiermacher and Barth studies. While there is, encouragingly, something of a renaissance of interest in Schleiermacher, Gockel’s contribution to our understanding of, and appreciation for, Schleiermacher’s project in general, and his doctrine of election in particular, is thus far unsurpassed. Schleiermacher is not an easy read. Not only is his own terminology inconsistent but his grammar is largely foreign to contemporary readers. Gockel offers us some assistance here. His contribution too regarding Barth’s early thinking on election also serves as a most worthy conversation partner with other contributions in the same area.

The essay is clearly written, avoids stereotypes of Schleiermacher and Barth, and includes a useful bibliography and two indexes. While Gockel offers us a very valuable survey to the thinking of two Protestant giants on a central theme not only in their theology but in the Reformed tradition of which they were both heirs – a valuable task in itself – I would have liked to have seen more critical engagement with these two voices. It may have also been fruitful, for example, to chart how Schleiermacher’s and Barth’s doctrine of election relates to the human response to God’s free grace in baptism, for example, as Barth was already directing us to in IV/4.

These grumbles aside, in what is certainly one of the finest essays to have appeared on Barth in recent years, Gockel models for us the kind of close dogmatic scrutiny that Schleiermacher’s and Barth’s theological contribution both deserves and demands. Those with an interest in systematic theology and the history of doctrine, those with an interest in getting their head (and hearts) around Barth’s much misunderstood doctrine of election, those with an interest in exploring a way forward for overcoming old rifts between Lutherans and Calvinists, and those with an interest in more current debates over universalism, would all be well served by reading Gockel’s book.

One comment

  1. Jason,

    Thanks for your outstanding review of Gockel’s book. I did my own dissertation on Barth’s critique of Schleiermacher. I have learned a good deal more about that relationship from your review, and hope some day to read Gockel’s book (when it arrives in our library, or I mortgage my home to purchase it!). Thanks again.
    Doug Harink

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