Bruce McCormack gave an outstanding lecture at this year’s Annual Karl Barth Conference. It was titled ‘The Passion of God Himself: the Cry of Dereliction in Barth’s Theology’. The lecture proper starts at around the 26-minute mark.
The 2015 Annual Karl Barth Conference, currently underway at Princeton Theological Seminary, has kicked off with a stirring opening lecture by Jürgen Moltmann on the topic ‘Predestination: Karl Barth’s Doctrine of the Election of Grace’. Professor Moltmann reminded us again why Barth was right when he wrote, in CD §32, that ‘the doctrine of election is the sum of the Gospel because of all the words that can be said or heard it is the best: that God elects humanity; that God is for humanity too the One who loves in freedom’.
For those who missed the lecture, here it is:
Whether on the subject of beer or theology, Bruce McCormack is always worth listening to (he’s considerably less reliable on the subject of sports), and that not least when it comes to the subject of Karl Barth and the doctrines of election. Here is Bruce’s lecture titled ‘God’s Gracious Election in the Theology of Karl Barth: Musings on a Possible Way to Move Beyond the Calvinist/Arminian Divide’ given last year at the Rethinking Arminius Conference held at Point Loma Nazarene University.
Back in September, I posted on Bruce McCormack‘s 2011 Kantzer Lectures on the theme ‘The God who Graciously Elects’. I tried watching these at the time via the livestream, but the stream itself, or something at my end of it, was really quite inadequate. That said, what I did hear of the lectures was, as expected, fantastic. I’m pleased to announce that the lectures are now available for MP3 download:
Lecture One: Tuesday, September 27 |
“Is the Reformation Over? Reflections on the Place of the Doctrine of God in Evangelical Theology Today”.
Lecture Two: Wednesday, September 28 |
“From the One God to the Trinity: The Creation of the Orthodox
Understanding of God”.
Lecture Three: Wednesday, September 28 |
“The Great Reversal: From the Economy of God to the Trinity in
Lecture Four: Thursday, September 29 |
“The God Who Reveals Himself: The Mystery of the Trinity in the New
Lecture Five: Monday, October 3 |
“Which Christology? Refining the Economic Basis of the Christian
Doctrine of God”.
Lecture Six: Monday, October 3 |
“The Processions Contain the Missions: Reconstructing the Doctrine
of an Immanent Trinity”.
Lecture Seven: Tuesday, October 4 |
“The Being of God as Gift and Grace: On Freedom and Necessity, Aseity
and the Divine “Attributes”.
The lectures are also available to watch via Henry Centre Media.
By the way, if you’re the praying kind – i.e., if you’re someone who tries to be human – please consider ascending a few breaths for the people of Christchurch who have just, about an hour ago, experienced another earthquake.
The plan is that in just 10 days time, Bruce McCormack will deliver the first of seven of the 2011 Kantzer Lectures in Revealed Theology. His theme? ‘The God who Graciously Elects’. Few have thought, written and spoken more about this topic in recent years than Bruce has, and even though I’ve now heard Bruce speak to this theme on five occasions across three continents, I’m very much looking forward to hearing him again, this time via the promised live stream.
Here’s the UPDATED lecture titles:Lecture One: Tuesday, September 27 | 7:00-8:30 pm “Is the Reformation Over? Reflections on the Place of the Doctrine of God in Evangelical Theology Today” Lecture Two: Wednesday, September 28 | 2:00-3:30 pm “From the One God to the Trinity: The Creation of the Orthodox Understanding of God” Lecture Three: Wednesday, September 28 | 4:00-5:30 pm “The Great Reversal: From the Economy of God to the Trinity in Modern Theology” Lecture Four: Thursday, September 29 | 4:00-5:30 pm “The God Who Reveals Himself: The Mystery of the Trinity in the New Testament” Lecture Five: Monday, October 3 | 2:00-3:30 pm “Which Christology? Refining the Economic Basis of the Christian Doctrine of God” Lecture Six: Monday, October 3 | 4:00-5:30 pm “The Processions Contain the Missions: Reconstructing the Doctrine of an Immanent Trinity” Lecture Seven: Tuesday, October 4 | 4:00-5:30 pm “The Being of God as Gift and Grace: On Freedom and Necessity, Aseity and the Divine “Attributes” The lectures are open to all, free of charge. They will also be live-streamed here.
Reading the Decree: Exegesis, Election and Christology in Calvin and Barth, by David Gibson. Pp. xiii + 221. London/New York: T&T Clark, 2009, ISBN 9 780567 468741.
In the summer of 1922, the young Karl Barth taught a course on the theology of Calvin. As he struggled to prepare lectures, he immersed himself passionately in Calvin’s thought – even cancelling his other announced course (on the Epistle to the Hebrews) so that he could concentrate solely on the Reformer’s writings. In a letter penned to Eduard Thurneysen that same year, Barth expressed his astonishment at the strangeness and power of what he had discovered: ‘Calvin is a cataract, a primeval forest, a demonic power, something directly down from Himalaya, absolutely Chinese, strange, mythological; I lack completely the means, the suction cups, even to assimilate this phenomenon, not to speak of presenting it adequately. What I receive is only a thin little stream and what I can then give out again is only a yet thinner extract of this little stream. I could gladly and profitably set myself down and spend all the rest of my life just with Calvin’. Certainly any project which attempts to bring these two giants into conversation is, to say the least, ambitious; particularly, perhaps, when it comes to their respective doctrines of election.
Unprepared to simply accept various readings of Calvin’s and Barth’s doctrines of election, David Gibson, in a ‘lightly revised version’ (p. xi) of his PhD dissertation completed at the University of Aberdeen under the supervision of Francis Watson, turns to Calvin’s corpus (particularly to his commentaries and to the Institutes) and to Barth (CD II/2 principally) in order to investigate and then compare their respective articulations of the doctrine, and to enquire about what relationship election has with christology in their projects. Moreover, Gibson is concerned to attend carefully to their exegeses, and to the ‘role of text-reception in theological construction’ (p. 11) in both thinkers. His argument is that ‘the exegetical presentations of Christology and election in Calvin and Barth expose a contrasting set of relationships between these doctrinal loci in each theologian’ (p. 1) and that this differing relationship between the two doctrines flows from and informs two contrasting approaches to the interpretation of Scripture. Gibson helps his readers appreciate how, for both Calvin and Barth, doctrine and exegesis are not tasks to be taken in isolation, but are, rather, united around, in different ways, the subject of their enquiry; namely, Jesus Christ and the caelesti decreto.
Employing and qualifying Richard Muller’s distinction between ‘soteriological christocentrism’ (so Calvin) and ‘principial christocentrism’ (so Barth), Gibson suggests a corresponding hermeneutical distinction – ‘extensive’ and ‘intensive’. A ‘Christologically extensive’ hermeneutic is evident, Gibson contends, when ‘the centre of Christology points outwards to other doctrinal loci which have space and scope to exist in themselves at a measure of distance from Christology and from each other’. Here christology ‘may influence and shape’ other loci, but christology neither dictates nor controls them. This, Gibson argues, represents Calvin’s christology. Conversely, a ‘Christologically intensive’ hermeneutic describes when ‘the christological centre defines all else within its circumference. Within this circle, Christology draws everything else to itself so that all other doctrinal loci cannot be read in Scripture apart from explicit christological reference’ (p. 15). So Barth, whose intensively christological hermeneutic ‘privileges the name of Jesus Christ in ways which go significantly beyond Calvin’s understanding of how Christology functions in exegesis’ (p. 27).
Gibson traces these two distinctions through Calvin’s and Barth’s approaches to christology, election and hermeneutics, illustrating that while much of the same grammar is employed, and many of the same biblical texts examined, and while their respective exegeses of election exist within ‘christological horizons which show how doctrine itself may be a hermeneutic’ (p. 16), Calvin and Barth often sing in different keys, and at times different songs though with no less exegetical reasoning in either.
In Chapter 2 – ‘Christology and Election’ – Gibson deepens his basic thesis by further sketching the relationship between Christ and election in Calvin’s and Barth’s exegeses. He argues that, while Barth’s position is not as radical as some recent interpreters have claimed, Barth’s understanding of the pre-existent Jesus as the subject of election sponsors two different understandings of election’s trinitarian basis than we see in Calvin. Gibson’s basic point here is that Calvin’s christocentrism emerges as distinctively soteriological while Barth’s is radically principial: ‘Calvin’s theology allows us to speak of Christ and the decree, but Barth’s theology to say that Christ is the decree’ (p. 30).
In Chapter 3, Gibson illustrates his thesis in detail by outlining Calvin’s and Barth’s reading and use of Romans 9–11. He shows that both theologians operate with different understandings of the relationship between covenant and election because of the location that each grants to christology. This leads to two contrasting ideas of Israel’s vocation and relationship to the Church. Moreover, whereas for Barth, Christ himself is the subject of election, and for whose sake Israel’s election occurs, Calvin reads Romans 9–11 as an exposition of the eternal decree in which christology recedes into the background. In other words, christology, for Calvin, is concerned with the economy of salvation rather than, as it is for Barth, with the eternal ground of salvation itself. Gibson concludes the chapter by asserting that ‘whereas for Calvin, Israel is typological of the church, for Barth both Israel and the church are typological of Christ, so that both forms of the community are “initially the two different but then inseparably related aspects of the fulfilment of the one covenant of grace in Christ”. These radically different conceptions of the covenant in Calvin and Barth issue directly from different forms of christocentrism’ (p. 153).
Gibson turns then in the final chapter to survey how christology shapes the way that his two subjects read Scripture. His aim here again is to show how Calvin’s christologically-extensive theology of interpretation explains how he intends election to be read in Scripture, and how this differs from Barth’s christologically-intensive approach. Gibson describes the latter’s reading of election as a ‘hermeneutic of patience and complexity, of interaction between the individual, multi-faceted predestinarian texts and the christological whole of which they are a part’ (p. 192). He also explores how ‘underlying these different hermeneutical approaches are two fundamentally different conceptions of the doctrine of revelation’ (p. 155).
There is much to commend about Gibson’s study: (i) He offers the reader a clear, careful and fair reading of Calvin and Barth on a doctrine that is, in the latter’s words, ‘the sum of the Gospel’ (CD II/2, p. 3); (ii) He is refreshingly appreciative of the ways in which the connections and motifs internal to Barth’s own thought are deeply indebted to the Reformed tradition, and particularly to Calvin: ‘For all his independent and creative genius, Barth’s theology is profoundly catholic, soaked in dialogue and debate with centuries of tradition and modulated with a Reformed accent’ (p. 18); (iii) The comparative reading (in §3) of Romans 9–11 yields much that is fruitful, and superbly illustrates the thesis of the entire volume. But, to my mind, the supreme value of Gibson’s study is (iv) the reminder – and there is little doubt that current Calvin and Barth scholarship needs such! – that at core, both Calvin and Barth are exegetes of Scripture, and that the neglect of the exegetical contours which shape their respective dogmatic projects is ruinous to providing a faithful reading of their corpuses. ‘For both interpreters, Holy Scripture is the quarry from which their dogmatic structure for election is hewn. Repeatedly, in the writings of both theologians, the emphasis on reception – it is in Scripture and not in their own theologizing that election is properly learned – is accompanied with a stress on right reception’ (p. 198). Gibson also addresses a brief word to contemporary Barth scholarship: ‘It is likely that where Barth’s doctrine of election is debated without attention to his practice as an exegete, and specifically to the very question which mattered most to him – “Does it stand in Scripture?” – then a debate occurs within parameters which Barth himself would not have recognized’ (p. 199). Such an approach is to be enthusiastically welcomed.
There are, however, a few less-satisfying aspects of what is otherwise a very valuable study. I will name five: (i) To my mind, Gibson appropriates too uncritically Muller’s reading of Calvin, and those readers less confident that Muller has read Calvin rightly may well be left wondering just how robust Gibson’s argument is; (ii) The focus of Gibson’s treatment of Barth tends to be too narrowly focused on CD II/2 and so neglects to attend to the nuances and developments in Barth’s understanding and articulation of election in other places. This leads at times to a flatter presentation of Barth’s (and of Calvin’s) thought than if greater attention had been paid to the historical and polemical natures of their projects. In Barth’s case, for example, of the way that his ‘principial christocentrism’ serves as protest to post-Kantian theology; (iii) Not a few readers will be disappointed that there is so little engagement with the secondary literature. For example, while Matthias Gockel’s and Suzanne McDonald’s PhD theses on Barth and T.F. Torrance’s study on Calvin’s hermeneutics are less concerned with the detail of biblical exegesis in their subjects than is Gibson, Gockel’s project is quickly dismissed (on p. 26) and any engagement with McDonald’s and Torrance’s work, and the kinds of systematic terrain that they are concerned to explore, is noticeably absent from Gibson’s essay. They would, if handled carefully, inform and strengthen its own foci; (iv) Most readers would no doubt prefer that extended quotations in Latin be accompanied with translation; and (v) Finally, Gibson resists offering any substantial critique or evaluation of his subjects’ method and doctrinal conclusions. Such may have served to draw out in constructive detail some of the places where Calvin and Barth are less than rewarding to us.
These reservations aside, this study deserves a wide reading, and will be of particular interest to Calvin and Barth scholars, to those interested in the development of the theo-logic of the doctrine of election in the Reformed tradition, and to those who are interested in seeing how two of that tradition’s major voices – one early modern and one late modern – read and used the Bible.
‘One could almost say that there is only one political question worth asking about liberal democracy: how firmly are the two elements, political freedom and and electoral legitimation, bound together? Is their conjunction a matter of necessity? Or is it merely the product of a peculiar socio-ecological niche, perhaps too fragile or too specialized to transplant?’ – Oliver O’Donovan, Ways of Judgment (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 168.
‘Electoral forms, then, not only fail to guarantee a just, or liberal, government; they are no guarantee of material representation either. The defense of Western democracy must, it seems, be even more modest than the most modest defense current among apologists. Perhaps it may take some form such as this: Modes of representation cannot be chosen in a vacuum; they are dependent upon the conditions of society and on the forms of spontaneous representation that arise unbidden. In a society that has lost most of its traditional representative forms to the unstable and shifting relations built on individualism and technology, but which can count on economic wealth, good communications, and general literacy, there is not serious alternative to the ballot box. Attempts to revive lost forms of loyalty are liable to be Ersatz and morally hollow; we had better secure ourselves against the temptations they present by setting a high procedural threshold for movement of spontaneous popular identity, and this electoral democracy provides. The case for democracy is that it is specifically appropriate to Western society at this juncture. It is a moment in the Western tradition; it has it own ecological niche. This allows us no universal claims of the “best regime” kind, nor does it permit the imperialist view that the history of democracy is the history of progress. Yet within its own terms it allows us to be positive about democracy’s strengths. The best regime is precisely that regimne that plays to the virtues and skills of those who are governed by it; and this one serves us well in demanding and developing certain virtues of bureaucratic and public discourse that the Western tradition has instilled. It is our tradition; we are bred in it; we can, if we are sensible about it, make it work’. – Oliver O’Donovan, Ways of Judgment (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 178 .
A preamble: this is not an exhaustive list.
1. Remember, if you are a Christian then you are part of a pilgrim people who ought never really feel at home in this world because we have been made for another.
2. No matter which government is in power, the Church’s charge remains the same – to preach the Gospel. This will include, among other things, at least a 4-fold word: (i) challenging the structures of our society that demean humanity made in the image of God; (ii) challenging the agendas of our society that leave the poor and the widows and the orphans without a voice; (iii) challenging the complacency of a people who refuse to think, or can’t be bothered thinking, about the consequences of the decisions we are making (this has obvious international consequences); and (iv) challenging the selfishness of those who get fatter and fatter at the expense of others, and at the expense of the creation.
3. God’s people receive their identity not from earthly governments, but from the knowledge that they belong to the Lord Jesus and live under his government, and by his word.
4. Regardless of what’s going on in the fleeting world of politics, the Gospel will always have something to say to the world, and to a Church that must continuously strive to keep itself from ever thinking that the Gospel of the Cross is not enough.
5. We must beware lest we fall into the trap that so many Christians throughout history have fallen into of believing that there is such a thing as the only and true Christian form of government. No political party can be baptised, nor any political system. The radical call of Jesus remains regardless of what the government of the day is doing. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t strive to bring about godly reforms and laws in the land, but it does mean that we mustn’t delude ourselves into thinking that we can create a heaven on earth.
6. The temptation to deny Christ exists no matter what the political situation and culture is.
7. Don’t be among those who see voting as a chore and as a painful waste of time. Remember that it is a privilege to vote. God has placed many of us in countries where we have the opportunity to take part in decision making as well as in the keeping of our elected leaders accountable. Thank God that some of God’s people live in such places. [I have always struggled to understand how a democracy can encourage non-compulsory voting, not least given the claim of support for democracy-making in other parts of the world!]
8. Thank God for democracy, but never trust it. ‘Democracy’, wrote Forsyth, ‘is but a half-truth. It must have a King. Aristocracy is just as true and as needful. It builds on an authority in things no less than democracy builds on an equality. The free personality of democracy is only possible under a free authority. The free soul is only possible in a free King … There must always be a House of Moral Lords. There must always be leaders and led, prophets and people, apostles and members, genius and its circle, and elect and a called. Ah! democratic and aristocratic principles are both deep in the foundations of our Christian faith’. At the end of the day, ‘democracy is the recurrent suspicion that more than half of the people are right more than half the time’ (E. B. White). Recall the words of C.S. Lewis: ‘I am a democrat [believer in democracy] because I believe in the Fall of Man. I think most people are democrats for the opposite reason. A great deal of democratic enthusiasm descends from the ideas of people like Rousseau, who believed in democracy because they thought mankind so wise and good that every one deserved a share in the government. The danger of defending democracy on those grounds is that they’re not true … I find that they’re not true without looking further than myself. I don’t deserve a share in governing a hen-roost. Much less a nation … The real reason for democracy is just the reverse. Mankind is so fallen that no man can be trusted with unchecked power over his fellows. Aristotle said that some people were only fit to be slaves. I do not contradict him. But I reject slavery because I see no men fit to be masters’.
9. Remember that even secular leadership comes under the domain of God’s sovereignty, and that God uses non-Christians, as well as Christians, to bring about his purposes. The Bible assures us that all those who serve the people well are servants of God. So thank God for his own sovereign governing of the world (Rom 13:1-7).
10. Pray diligently for the leaders and all those in responsibilities of power and decision making. We are commanded by God to pray for all our leaders. Pray that they would make wise and just decisions and govern with mercy as well as strength. Pray for those who do not know Christ, that they would become Christians.
12. Don’t vote for the party who will best serve your pocket and own interests, but vote for the government or person who you prayerfully and honestly believe can best think through the necessary and complex issues with an attitude of serving others within their own country, and beyond.
13. Once the election has taken place, don’t grumble if your choice of party or person is not elected, for Peter tells us to, ‘Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us. Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish men. Live as free men, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as servants of God. Show proper respect to everyone: Love the brotherhood of believers, fear God, honour the king (1 Peter 2:12-17).
The latest edition of the Irish Theological Quarterly is now out and includes an essay by Myk Habets on ‘The Doctrine of Election in Evangelical Calvinism: T. F. Torrance as a Case Study’. Here’s the abstract:
Representing what may be termed ‘evangelical Calvinism,’ Thomas Forsyth Torrance’s doctrine of election is, with critical modifications, recommended as a model worthy of contemporary acceptance. Torrance follows Barth’s christologically conditioned doctrine of election closely, but not slavishly, and presents a view of universal atonement and even universal pardon, but not universal salvation. Torrance contends that the word ‘predestination’ emphasizes the sovereign freedom of grace and so the ‘pre-‘ in predestination refers neither to a temporal nor to a logical prius, but simply to God Himself, the Eternal. For God, election is not an event of the past but rather an action internal to God (a se). Because Christ is the ground of election, and Christ came in space—time, election took on a temporal component. Election derives from the Divine initiative of grace and Torrance is highly critical of Arminian theology at this point, accusing it of being semi-Pelagian; he is equally critical of Roman Catholicism which, according to Torrance, is also semi-Pelagian if not Pelagian outright.
‘Now for this tremendous certainty [of election] there is no other foundation than the historical revelation and salvation in Christ as the eternal and comprehensive object of God’s loving will and choice, the Captain of the elect. We have not sufficient ground outside that for believing or trusting such a God. We cannot start with a view of God reached on speculative or other similar grounds, and then use Christ as a mere means for confirming it or giving it practical effect. That would mean a certainty higher than Christ’s, and the superfluity of Christ when the end had been reached. Which is not the Christian Gospel, be that Gospel right or wrong. In that Gospel our final certainty can never be detached from what Christ did, what He is and does for eternity. The eternal election is in Christ, “Mine elect in whom My soul delighteth”; and only in Christ does faith at every stage realise it. Hence it has been well pointed out that we must not preach election to produce the certainty of Christian faith, but preach Christ and faith in Him to give us the certainty of our election’. – Peter T. Forsyth, The Principle of Authority in Relation to Certainty, Sanctity and Society: An Essay in the Philosophy of Experimental Religion (London: Independent Press, 1952), 353.
‘The Son in His relation to his Father is the eternal archetype and prototype of God’s glory in His outward manifestation, in God’s co-existence with another, with man, in the Godman, Jesus Christ and through Him with all men … Moreover, he claims that Jesus Christ-and that includes His humanity – and in Jesus Christ man himself was with God from eternity, namely in God’s thought and will’. – Herbert Hartwell, The Theology of Karl Barth: An Introduction (London: Duckworth, 1964), 100.
‘In Jesus Christ, above all in His divine-human nature, the meaning of God’s election is revealed. For that which has taken place at the very centre of the divine self-revelation, that is, in Jesus Christ, in His person and work, is, seen in the light of His resurrection, God’s election. As the eternal Son of God who became man in the man Jesus of Nazareth, suffered and died on the Cross that sinful man may forever have fellowship with God, Jesus Christ is Himself the eternal decree or rather the realization of that resolve of God within Himself in His eternity before the creation of the world which is termed the eternal decree of God. It is only in Jesus Christ and through Him that God could carry out and has carried out His eternal plan with man, His eternal election of Himself to fellowship with man and of man to fellowship with Himself, and it is for this reason that Jesus Christ is the original and primary object of God’s election, God’s first and eternal thought and will in His election’. – Herbert Hartwell, The Theology of Karl Barth: An Introduction (London: Duckworth, 1964), 107-8.
The latest issue of Journal of Reformed Theology (Volume 2, Number 2, 2008) is out and includes the following articles:
Cornelius van der Kooi, The Appeal to the Inner Testimony of the Spirit, especially in H. Bavinck
Abstract: “The Reformation took-deliberately and freely-its position in the religious subject.” In this article, the argument is made that Bavinck has not formulated a strong position with this statement; but rather, a dubious starting point for Reformed theology. The question is whether this thesis, with its focus on the subject, can still be maintained in this manner within the current ecumenical situation, or whether it is imperative that it be adjusted.
Abstract: The doctrine of election lies at the heart of Reformed theology. This essay offers a review of Matthias Gockel’s recent comparison between two of Reformed theology’s greatest voices: that of Friedrich Schleiermacher and Karl Barth. Gockel outlines Schleiermacher’s contribution to the doctrine before turning to consider its modifications in Barth’s work. The advance of these two thinkers on this issue has significant implications for the ongoing questions of universal election and universal salvation. Consequently, the possibility of an apokatastasis panton arises naturally from their theology. This possibility is briefly explored.
Oliver D. Crisp, The Election of Jesus Christ
Abstract: In modern theology the election of Christ is often associated with the work of Karl Barth. In this paper, I offer an alternative account of Christ’s election in dialogue with the Post-Reformation Reformed tradition. It turns out that, contrary to popular belief, there is no single ‘Reformed’ doctrine of election; a range of views has been tolerated in the tradition. I set out one particular construal of the election of Christ that stays within the confessional parameters of Reformed theology, while arguing, contrary to some Reformed divines, that Christ is the cause and foundation of election.
Abstract: This article discusses the way in which the Dutch theologian K.H. Miskotte interpreted the nihilism of Friedrich Nietzsche. It will be pointed out that religion is the central notion of Miskotte’s approach of Nietzsche. Discussing this theme, it will be necessary to pay attention to the concept of Nietzsche’s nihilism. From there we receive a clearer insight in the interaction between Miskotte and Nietzsche. It is expected that examining nihilism and the interaction with nihilism will be helpful to contextualize theology. The method of Miskotte is attractive because he does not evaluate nihilism in a philosophical manner, but he counters it by the Thora. Belief stands against belief. Nevertheless we can ask whether Miskotte’s concept of religion is adequate enough to tackle the problems we have to deal with in our nihilistic culture. Is Miskotte right when he connects nihilism and religion, and what kind of religion is he connecting with nihilism?
Abstract: As a result of immigration of many Christians from all parts of the world to the Netherlands, about 1,000 ‘immigrant churches’ have been established in the country during the last decades. This paper focuses on two churches in the Netherlands that mainly consist of members of Asian descent: the Gereja Kristen Indonesia Nederlands (GKIN) and the Geredja Indjili Maluku (GIM). Both are Protestant churches that have a history within the Netherlands for many years. Since these churches are not very well-known in the worldwide family of Reformed churches, I will describe their historical and cultural backgrounds quite extensively. This also includes the Dutch missionary involvement with the former Dutch colony of Indonesia. Subsequently, I will turn to their actual situation, and my main question will be how they view and carry out their missionary vocation in Dutch society. In the final section, it will be maintained that these churches do not simply mirror the missionary approach of the Dutch in Indonesia, but they consider themselves partners with other churches in a revised mission in which their own features can be a blessing for the whole Dutch society.
Colin E. Gunton, The Barth Lectures (transcribed and edited by Paul H. Brazier; T&T Clark, London/New York, 2007). xxiv + 285 pages. ISBN: 9780567031402.
While he fruitfully enjoyed a life-long engagement with and formation by Karl Barth’s work, produced numerous articles on various aspects of such, and lectured on Barth most years he taught at King’s College London, Colin Gunton never fulfilled his ambition to pen a monograph devoted solely to this his favourite theologian. Had he done so, these lectures (recorded and transcribed almost verbatim by Paul Brazier, complete with charts, diagrams, live-questions and Gunton’s responses) would have served as the basis.
Chapters 1-3 attend to the intellectual, historical and theological background to Barth’s thinking. Beginning with a focus on Enlightenment philosophy as it finds voice in Kant, Schleiermacher and Hegel – all three of whom ‘identified Christianity too closely with modern culture’ (p. 17) – Gunton then turns to Barth’s early theological formation in the nineteenth-century liberalism of Harnack and Herrmann, as well as to some other voices and ideas that impinged on Barth’s theological development – Johann Christoph Blumhardt (who also influenced Moltmann), Albert Schweitzer and Franz Overbeck through whom eschatology was re-confirmed on the theological radar. Barth’s engagement with existentialism (Kierkegaardian and other) and theologies of ‘religion’, ‘crisis’ and ‘dialectics’ are introduced in the second and third lectures, and re-appear subsequently throughout. Certainly, for the Swiss theologian, ‘no road to the eternal world has ever existed except the road of negation’ (p. 33). Thus when Gunton later comes to unpack something of the charge concerning Barth’s ‘irrationality’ through the continuing influence of Der Römerbrief, empiricism, and Barth’s ‘assertive style’, the United Reformed Church minister notes:
The influence of empiricism, especially on the minds of English and American theologians, cannot be dismissed. The English, or to be more pertinent, the Anglican theological mind is shaped by a philosophical tradition that does not find Barth’s approach to theology easy to understand let alone agree with … Part of our intellectual tradition makes it hard for us to understand – particularly an Anglican tradition. Anglicans on the whole like things to be nice and middle way, the via media. And there is not much of the middle way in Karl Barth! … Barth’s assertive style does make it difficult for mild-mannered establishment Anglicans to cope with. (p. 66)
Whether critiquing Augustine, Calvin, Kant, the ‘Absolutely Pagan’ Hegel (p. 17), or the ‘great opponent’ Schleiermacher (p. 15), Gunton repeatedly identifies that the crucial question for the author of the groundbreaking Der Römerbrief remains ‘how much of your intellectual method hangs on something foreign to Christianity?’ (p. 42; cf. pp. 52-3). To this end, Gunton also devotes an entire lecture (pp. 53-63) to Barth’s 1931 work on Anselm, Fides quaerens intellectum, and to the Archbishop’s understanding of the relationship between ‘proof’, ‘reason’ and ‘faith’. He later writes: ‘Barth is a post-Reformation thinker with the rallying cry, by scripture alone and by faith alone! Barth found in the Reformation tradition a conception of theology based on a view of God that is linked with human salvation. The problem for Barth with the Scholastic tradition is that they begin with a rational view of God – a rational idea of God abstracted from human salvation. Barth begins with scripture because the God of scripture is about salvation not philosophical argument’ (p. 69). And on a comparison with Schleiermacher: ‘the problem with beginning with religion is that it is not theological, it can be, it can lead into theology, but in essence it is not: religion is an experiential concept, not a theological concept. Barth wants a theology that is theological right from the very outset. Barth considers that Roman Catholics and Protestants such as Schleiermacher are wrong in thinking that there can be a non-theological basis for theology. Barth is a theologian you see, to the fingernails’ (p. 69).
From Chapter Four onwards, Gunton turns to Barth’s Church Dogmatics, acutely aware that ‘there is nothing as boring as résumés of Barth’s Dogmatics‘ and that ‘the way to get into Barth is to select and to read – read him, there is no substitute!’ (p. 71). Over the next 190 pages, this is precisely what Gunton masterfully helps us do; whether on Barth’s theological prolegomena, his witness to the three-fold Word, trinity, the doctrine of God proper, election, christology, soteriology, ethics and creation, we are all along driven by the only thing of theological interest for Barth, the question ‘Who is the God who makes himself known in Scripture?’ (p. 77). ‘When Barth is at his best’, Gunton writes, ‘he looks at the biblical evidence in detail; when he is weak he tends to evade it’ (p. 119)
A few tastes from ‘5. Barth on the Trinity and the Personal God’:
Barth is anti-foundationalist … God’s revelation is self-grounded; it does not have to appeal to anything else beyond itself. Because it is revelation through itself, not in relation to something else, because it is self-contained, lordship means freedom. This is characteristically Barthian: a characteristically Barthian phrase. Lordship means freedom – freedom for God, absolutely central for Barth’s theology. (p. 78)
The basis of all theology lies in the fact that revelation does happen … This revelation is Christological: Jesus Christ is God’s self-unveiling. The Father cannot be unveiled, but the Father reveals through the Son. This is imparted through the Holy Spirit. A little artificial I actually think, but you can see what he is actually trying to do: he is trying to show that inherent in the structure of God’s presence in Jesus Christ is a Trinitarian view of God … The point here is that in Jesus Christ we see the limits, the possibilities of the knowability of God … So Barth in a way is still retaining this dialectical structure: veiling-unveiling, knowability -unknowability, revelation-hiddenness … In the end you have only got paradox … God preserves his privacy. (pp. 79-80)
The logic is that if God is like this in time then because he doesn’t con us, so to speak, he doesn’t pull the wool over our eyes, because he is a revealing God, then that is what God is. So don’t think that the God we meet in Jesus is one God and that the God of eternity is entirely different from Jesus. The God you meet in Jesus is no different from the God you might meet if you were able to have a direct view of eternity. (p. 83)
Barth is against all mathematics in theology – he is against theories and ideas propounded down the centuries by theologians whereby examples are given of the Trinity, where three things make one; Augustine was often doing this, it is pure analogy or an attempt at analogy, which generally fails to offer any theological elucidation … I don’t like Augustine. I think he is the fountainhead of our troubles. (pp. 84, 96)
[Barth] is often accused of modalism, and I think he is near it … I think he is on a bit of a knife-edge myself, but then all theology is on a knife-edge, it is such a difficult discipline. [Barth] wants to do what the Cappadocians did, and Barth thinks he has done it better with this term – ‘modes of being’. Well, I don’t agree with him, but that is the way he puts it. (pp. 88-9)
Theology is our interpretation of God’s self-interpretation. God interprets himself to us, that is what revelation is. Our response is to interpret this faithfully, or as Jüngel would put it, responsibly … We move from faith to understanding. We move from a grateful acceptance of revelation to an attempt to understand as best we may what that revelation means for God and ourselves. And the understanding consists in the fact that we can talk of God as Father, Son and Spirit. It is so obvious that we should, isn’t it! We might talk of God as a tyrannical monad, but the fact that we can talk of God as Father, Son and Spirit is, so to speak, a demonstration after the event that we are making sense, that God is making sense, our theology makes sense. (p. 91)
And from ‘8. Ethics: Church Dogmatics Chapter VIII:
I do think that there is a problem of abstractness because there isn’t really in Barth, I think (and I say this tentatively), I think that there isn’t really in Barth an account of how this relationship between God and the moral agent takes shape. There is not much of a principle of formation. How are people formed so as to take one ethical direction rather than another? Barth is relatively weak in ecclesiology; that is, some account of how ethics are shaped by the community of belief. He is so anxious not to tie God down; that is always his anxiety, not to tie God down. (p. 133)
Throughout, Gunton is rousing his 30-40 mostly MA and PhD students (although the lectures were intended for undergraduates and so leave considerable ground un-traversed and engage minimally with secondary literature) to ‘read as much of the man himself’ not least because ‘the people that write about him are much more boring than he is’ (p. 9; cf. p. 39). In a sense, this is one book to ‘listen to’ more than to ‘read’. At times, it’s a bit like the difference between a live album and a studio version. Not all the notes are spot on, but the energy – filled with a depth of theological and pastoral insight that betray years of wrestling with the things that matter – is all there.
Such wrestling means that whether expounding a key motif in Barth’s theology or fielding questions, Gunton reveals not only a deep indebtedness to Barth’s work, but also points of divergence. He is upfront in the first lecture: ‘Not everyone buys into Barth … I don’t, all the way along the line, as I get older I get more and more dissatisfied with the details of his working out of the faith … over the years I think I have developed a reasonable view of this great man who is thoroughly exciting and particularly, I can guarantee, if you do this course, that you will be a better theologian by the third year, whether or not you agree with him – he is a great man to learn to think theologically with’ (p. 10; see the prefaces to his Theology Through the Theologians and to the second edition of The Promise of Trinitarian Theology). Clearly, Gunton is no clone of Barth. Though mostly unnamed, he draws upon Coleridge, Owen, Zizioulas and Polanyi as allies in order to attain a measure of distance from Barth’s theology (and that of Barth’s student Moltmann), notably on creation, trinitarian personhood (Gunton prefers the Cappadocians), natural revelation, Jesus’ humanity, Christ’s priesthood, the Word’s action as mediator of creation, ecclesiology, and an over-realised eschatology, among other things (see pp. 52, 74, 82, 88-90, 96, 133, 142, 148, 170-1, 186, 200, 212, 227, 236, 250, 253-4, passim). Not alone here, Gunton reserves his strongest criticisms for what he contends is Barth’s weak pneumatology (for which he blames Augustine and the filioque): there is ‘not enough of the Spirit accompanying and empowering Jesus at different stages of his ministry’ (p. 200). Again: ‘the second person of the Trinity is made to do a bit more than he does in Scripture’ (p. 212). Gunton is always cautious and respectful however: Barth ‘never really forgets anything, he is too good a theologian for that. And when you are criticizing Barth it is only a question of where he puts a weight; he never forgets anything, he is too good a man for that’ (p. 171). Even on the Spirit, Gunton suggests that he can only be critical here because of what he has learnt from Barth already: ‘That’s the great thing about Barth: he enables you to do other things that aren’t just Barth but yet are empowered by him. Yes, that’s his greatness’ (p. 200).
While the reformed theologian is ‘too-multi-layered a thinker to have one leading idea’ if there is one, Gunton suggests it is that of covenant: ‘that from eternity God covenants to be the God who elects human beings into relation with himself’ (p. 149), that from eternity the triune God is oriented towards us. Gunton’s chapter on Barth’s revision of God’s election in CD II/2 is an astounding example of his adroitness and élan as a theological educator. Not many teachers could summarise so sufficiently and with such economy (just 12 pages!) what for Barth is the root of all things, ‘creation, atonement, all’ (p. 115), that is, election. Gunton concludes by (over?)-suggesting that Barth’s effort was ‘a huge improvement in the crude determinism of the Augustinian tradition, which did not represent a gracious God. The Augustinian doctrine replaces grace with gratuity: God gratuitously chooses group A and not group B – this is not the God who seeks out the lost [even Judas] and does not reject them’ (p. 121).
This volume is significantly more than merely a course on the theology of the twentieth century’s superlative theologian. It is also a reminder that to read Barth attentively is to be introduced to a broader dogmatic and philosophical tradition. Moreover, it is to be led to do so by one of Britain’s ablest pedagogues. A foreword by Christoph Schwöbel and a warm introduction by Steve Holmes prepare us for one of the freshest introductions to Barth available. Again, we are placed in Professor Gunton’s debt.
Here are the links to my 10-part review of Gockel’s book:
- Matthias Gockel on Barth and Schleiermacher on the Doctrine of Election: A Review – Part I
- Matthias Gockel on Barth and Schleiermacher on the Doctrine of Election: A Review – Part II
- Matthias Gockel on Barth and Schleiermacher on the Doctrine of Election: A Review – Part III
- Matthias Gockel on Barth and Schleiermacher on the Doctrine of Election: A Review – Part IV
- Matthias Gockel on Barth and Schleiermacher on the Doctrine of Election: A Review – Part V
- Matthias Gockel on Barth and Schleiermacher on the Doctrine of Election: A Review – Part VI
- Matthias Gockel on Barth and Schleiermacher on the Doctrine of Election: A Review – Part VII
- Matthias Gockel on Barth and Schleiermacher on the Doctrine of Election: A Review – Part VIII
- Matthias Gockel on Barth and Schleiermacher on the Doctrine of Election: A Review – Part IX
- 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.
The only two tenable (i.e. biblically and theologically defensible) positions available for the soteriological question are either (i) a robust reaffirmation of limited atonement (the negative side of which includes the possibility of annihilation), or (ii) some form of christological universalism (with various degrees of agnosticism). Barth, of course, was rightly suspicious of ‘isms’, whether universalism or any other –ism, and would not affirm a dogmatic doctrine of universal salvation, although he does join a tradition of both Eastern and Western theologians going back to Origen of Alexandria (185–232), Clement of Alexandria (d. 215), Gregory of Nyssa (335–394?), Ambrose of Milan (337?–397) and Gregory of Nazianzus (329–389) who all affirm a strong hope in universal salvation.
Barth famously concludes IV/3/1 by again urging that we have no good reason why we should be forbidden, or forbid ourselves from an ‘openness to the possibility that in the reality of God and man in Jesus Christ there is contained much more than we might expect’, including the ‘unexpected withdrawal of that final threat’.
If for a moment we accept the unfalsified truth of the reality which even now so forcefully limits the perverted human situation, does it not point plainly in the direction of the work of a truly eternal divine patience and deliverance and therefore of an apokatastasis or universal reconciliation? If we are certainly forbidden to count on this as though we had a claim to it, as though it were not supremely the work of God to which man can have no possible claim, we are surely commanded the more definitely to hope and pray for it as we may do already on this side of this final possibility, i.e., to hope and pray cautiously and yet distinctly that, in spite of everything which may seem quite conclusively to proclaim the opposite, His compassion should not fail, and that in accordance with His mercy which is ‘new every morning’ He ‘will not cast off for ever’ (La. 3:22f., 31).
The creature cannot impose anything upon God because God is sovereign and free. That is why universalism equals the elimination of God’s freedom. But if God in his sovereignty and freedom has revealed himself in his being-in-act – that is, in Jesus Christ – then ought – nay, must – this not have radical implications for all doctrinal issues, and no less this one. We have no reason to presume that God in his total freedom will act other than he has acted in Jesus Christ – full of grace and truth.
Therefore, we may reasonably hope for a full Apokatastasis. Few have expressed this hope more beautifully than the nineteenth century Congregationalist minister, James Baldwin Brown: ‘The love which won the sceptre on Calvary will wield it as a power, waxing ever, waning never, through all the ages; and that the Father will never cease from yearning over the prodigals, and Christ will never cease from seeking the lost, while one knee remains stubborn before the name of Jesus, and one heart is unmastered by His love’. Or consider these words from Thomas Erskine,
I cannot believe that any human being can be beyond the reach of God’s grace and the sanctifying power of His Spirit. And if all are within His reach, is it possible to suppose that He will allow any to remain unsanctified? Is not the love revealed in Jesus Christ a love unlimited, unbounded, which will not leave undone anything which love could desire? It was surely nothing else than the complete and universal triumph of that love which Paul was contemplating when he cried out, ‘Oh the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God!
In Jesus Christ, the Triune God has bound humanity to himself in such a way that even if we refuse him and damn ourselves to hell, God in his love will never cease hunting us down. So even if the church cannot affirm the apokatastasis panton, we can hope for it, and pray for it, and stop denying the possibility of it in the grace of God. Hans Urs von Balthasar was right when he said that there is all the difference in the world between believing in the certitude of universal salvation and hoping for it.
It is difficult to imagine a more solid basis for an Apokatastasis panton than Barth gives us in his doctrine of election and reprobation. But does Barth’s commitment to divine freedom contradict the centre of his christological revision? Does he ultimately lead us all to a country and then not promise us that we might enter? Gockel, following Janowski, suggests he does, and that the payment for such a commitment threatens to ‘tear open again, though in a modified way, the abyss of the decretum absolutum et horribile (p. 210) – as though God’s Word towards a person might be different from that which he has spoken in Jesus Christ.
While Gockel notes Barth’s denial of an ultimate apokatastasis panton, he joins a pantheon of critiques – sympathetic and otherwise – who see an inconsistency in Barth here. Consider, for example, the critique from Bromiley. As one of the editors (with T. F. Torrance) and principal translators of Barth’s work, few are more familiar with Barth’s corpus and theology than Bromiley. Citing IV/3, § 70.2, Bromiley synopsises Barth view: ‘The lie cannot overthrow the truth, but God may finally condemn the liar to live in it’. Bromiley observes in Barth a ‘trend toward an ultimate universalism’ although acknowledges that, for Barth, ‘universalism in the sense of the salvation of all individuals is not a necessary implicate of Barth’s Christological universalism’. He suggests that Barth’s reservation here is ‘not really adequate’. Gockel identifies the same inconsistently in Barth, a holding back of the full consequences of Barth’s christology. Again, Bromiley notes, ‘God’s manifest purpose in Christ is to save, but under the sovereignty of the Spirit some might not be saved. The question is whether the Christological reference finally helps or matters very much. Is not the ultimate decision still taken apart from the revealed election – that is, not in the prior counsel of the Father but in the inscrutable operation of the Spirit? In other words, the decision regarding individuals is simply removed from the inscrutability of sovereign predetermination to the inscrutability of sovereign calling’.
Brewing away throughout Gockel’s book, not unoften rearing its head, is the question of universal election and universal salvation. Gockel contends that Barth’s christological revision leads him to abandon his 1936 objection to universalism and affirmation of an eschatological division between the elect and the reprobate. Barth now ‘joins Schleiermacher in leaving open the possibility of a “final opening up and expansion of the circle of election and calling” which may include everyone’ (p. 188). Barth’s reluctance, however, to embrace universalism leads to some pointed challenges by Gockel.
Gockel notes that both Schleiermacher and Barth share a stance coherent with supralapsarianism’s claim that the decree of predestination precedes that of creation and Fall, although they both go further in their assertion that God’s mercy is the decisive criterion not of redemption only but also of predestination. Gockel argues that despite Barth’s ‘own explicit unwillingness to go that far’, that is, to embrace a universal predestination to salvation, his affirmation of universal election ‘implies some form of universal salvation’ (p. 189).
Gockel also contends that Barth’s appeal to God’s freedom is inconsistent with Barth’s own position regarding God’s self-determination to be Immanuel in Jesus Christ. Gockel notes that Barth’s (and Schleiermacher’s) caution on the issue can be partly explained by the fact that ‘any affirmation of universalism would have meant the endorsement of an ecumenical heresy, which could have cost him dearly’ (p. 208). The question, however, remains: How can that which has already been overcome in Jesus Christ ever be undone? How can this impossible possibility remain? Gockel suggests that Schleiermacher is at least more consistent here with his emphasis on the unity of God’s will. With all of Barth’s massively powerful christological revisioning, he, according to Gockel, ‘shied away from certain far-ranging implications’ (p. 205). ‘One should ask’, Gockel suggests, ‘whether a consistent theory of an Apokatastasis, far from presenting a danger or even a threat, might not be a more satisfying option than the claim that the New Testament leaves us with a paradoxical constellation of the “universalism of the divine salvific will” versus the “particularism of judgement”’ (p. 208).
I confess that I sympathise with Barth’s reluctance to embrace with certainty an apokatastasis panton, even while I hold out, with Barth, hope in such a reconciliation. Barth was right to insist that God’s grace is characterised by God’s freedom. This means not only that we must never impose limits on the scope of grace, but also that we must never impose a universalist ‘system’ on grace either. To embrace either option would be to compromise the freedom of grace and also to presume that we can define the precise scope of God’s grace. That is why Barth’s theology of grace incorporates a dialectical protest: he protests both against a system of universalism and against a denial of universalism. The essential point, for Barth, is that God’s grace is completely free; that when God acts in grace it is none other than God himself who acts in freedom. When God comes to us in his grace, therefore, we can be certain that no third party or shadowy motive is twisting his arm. Because of this divine freedom and because of the nature of divine grace as grace, we can neither deny nor affirm, therefore, the possibility of universal salvation. I confess with Abraham, ‘Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?’ (Gen 18:25). Barth writes,
The proclamation of the Church must make allowance for this freedom of grace. Apokatastasis Panton? No, for a grace which automatically would ultimately have to embrace each and every one would certainly not be free grace. It surely would not be God’s grace. But would it be God’s free grace if we could absolutely deny that it could do that? Has Christ been sacrificed only for our sins? Has He not, according to 1 John 2:2, been sacrificed for the whole world? … [Thus] the freedom of grace is preserved on both these sides … Even in the midst of hell, grace would still be grace, and even in the midst of hell it would have to be honored and praised and therefore announced to the other inhabitants of hell. It is not free for nothing, but it is also not grace for nothing. We should certainly not know it if we were of the opinion that we could stop short of announcing it.
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).
Gockel turns to critically consider the consequences of Barth’s doctrine of election. He identifies six key areas: (1) epistemological implications, (2) the concrete determination of predestination, (3) the issue of double predestination, (4) the actuality of predestination, (5) the question of universal election and universal salvation, and (6) the relation between Israel and the Christian church. I will focus here on (2), (3), (4) and (5).
Regarding the second area, while Barth never intended to drive a wedge between the economy and being of God, Gockel sides with McCormack over against Molnar that this very inconsistency arises within Barth’s own formulation of his doctrine of election: ‘The assumption of a divine will preceding the predestination puts into doubt whether the gracious choice really belongs to God’s “own eternal essence”’ (p. 179). The issue fundamentally concerns whether or not the works of God ad extra (election) are the free overflow of the works of God ad intra (as Molnar suggests) or whether the one eternal will of God is identical with Jesus Christ. Molnar’s reading of Barth’s proposal that God has one being, and that that one being subsists simultaneously in two different forms – the second dependent on the first – which are not separate but rather are a unity-in-distinction and distinction-in-unity, could have been more attended to by Gockel than he does (pp. 179–80).
On the question of double predestination, Gockel rehearses Barth’s conviction that we must speak of Jesus Christ not only in reference to the positive side of election but also in reference to the other side of God’s decree – reprobation. Here, as we shall see below, Barth sets himself apart from the tradition (or at least extends the tradition) and declares that both election and reprobation happen in Jesus Christ. Barth’s doctrine of reprobation is as christological as his doctrine of election. He contends that the God who elected fellowship with humanity also elected our rejection. In electing our rejection, however, ‘He made it his own. He bore it and suffered it with all its most bitter consequences’. Thus in the self-reprobation of Godself in Jesus Christ – the Man justified and the ‘Judge judged in our place’ – humanity recognises not only God’s final ‘Yes’ but also its own reprobation. This self-giving is God’s free choice and entails God’s self-determination and the determination of humanity through a ‘wonderful exchange’ in Jesus Christ. ‘To believe in God’s predestination’, Gockel concludes, ‘means by definition to believe in the non-reprobation of humankind’ (p. 181). As Barth notes, ‘in God’s eternal purpose’ it is not humanity but ‘God Himself who is rejected in His Son’. God’s self-giving in Jesus Christ consists in the fact that he is rejected in our place: ‘Predestination means that from all eternity God has determined upon man’s acquittal at His own cost’. Gockel then raises the question and apparent conflict concerning whether the claim that the Son of God instead of the Son of Man suffered God’s wrath contrasts with Barth’s earlier claim that ‘the elected human being Jesus is the target or “offering” of God’s wrath’. He notes Barth’s own awareness of and answer to this in II/1: ‘Only God Himself could bear God’s wrath. Only God’s mercy was capable of bearing the kind of suffering to which the creature existing in opposition to God is subject. Only God’s mercy could be touched by this suffering in such a way that it knew how to make it its own suffering. And only God’s mercy was strong enough not to perish in this suffering’ (p. 183). As if hell – that is, something of creation – could exhaust the awful shame and scandal of sin.