Wednesday, August 05, 2015

The Strength and Weakness of Karl Barth's View of Divine Election

In a class a few years back, I was given an exercise to read Karl Barth. The point was to read Barth to find that which was helpful and that which was not.  

The Strength and Weakness of Karl Barth's View of Divine Election

What would happen if Karl Barth’s exposition of divine election fell like a bombshell on the playground of an argumentative Calvinist? If confronted with Barth’s exposition, those defenders of the five-points, ready at any minute to debate the extent of the atonement or expounding on God’s sovereignty to a befuddled evangelical, would find themselves engaging an antagonist that may actually impart a few nuggets of friendly and helpful insight. Such a statement might be scoffed at. Isn’t extracting a few bits of truth from a neo-orthodox theologian simply an exercise in Hegelian synthesis?

Despite his arguable departures from Reformed orthodoxy, Karl Barth may indeed have wisdom for argumentative Calvinists. Those who discard the totality of his view of divine election may be throwing away that which could be beneficial. If it is not possible to read that which one disagrees and extract insight, then the method of the Apostle Paul on Mars Hill should likewise be indicted.

The first part of this paper will look at some aspects of Barth’s theology of election in which an argumentative Calvinist will be challenged to determine if chewing off the meat but spitting out the bones applies to reading Barth. But does that mean these Barthian bites of wisdom should simply be taken at face value? It will be shown that each has its own baggage. The second part of the paper will examine concerns raised by scrutinizing the cogency of that presented previously.

Strength One: Defend the God of the Bible
It seems absurd to suggest that a Calvinist would not always be defending the God of the Bible in every argument put forth. Karl Barth though found this was indeed the case with one of his contemporaries. In his popular book written in defense of the five-points of Calvinism, Lorraine Boettner states, “Then, too, when we stop and consider that among many non-Christian religions Mohammedanism has so many millions who believe in some kind of Predestination, that the doctrine of Fatalism has been held in some form or other in several heathen countries, and that mechanistic and deterministic philosophies have exerted such great influences in England, Germany, and America, we see that this doctrine is at least worthy of careful study.”(1)

Barth asks us to consider Boettner’s statement “some kind of Predestination.” While the early Calvinists saw great value and comfort in a strong doctrine of election, Barth notes “the Lutherans of the 16th and 17th centuries, and many others too, saw only an endangering of assurance of salvation, the sense of responsibility, etc., or even an open relapse into Stoicism, Manicheism, Quietism and Libertinism.”(2) Barth rightly asks us to consider if Boettner makes their complaint justified, “Boettner appears to rejoice at the supposed kinship between the doctrine of predestination, as understood Calvinistically, and the teaching of Islam. But this supposed kinship was the very reason why the older Lutherans sought to discredit the Calvinists by describing them as secret adherents of the Eastern Antichrist.”(3) Barth rightly asks, how are we to distinguish statements about God’s predestination and providence over against what a Jew, Mohammedan, or stoic might say?(4) When Christians speak of God, they are not speaking of a God in general “as he may be conceived and systematically constructed from the standpoint of sovereignty, of omnipotence, of a first cause, of absolute necessity.”(5) Defending such an ambiguous deity is defending an ill-defined idol, “the exact opposite of the true God.”(6)

For Barth, attempts at natural theology like that proposed by Boettner lead to idolatry because they lack dependence on the grace of God. Such a position assumes man begins with himself and then reasons to God. Barth sees the opposite. One begins with the gracious God of the Bible in the works and ways he reveals himself. He’s revealed himself as an electing deity. The term “election” can only be properly understood by the way the God of the Bible has explained it: In Christ, for us.

Strength Two: Define the God of the Bible
If avoiding general philosophic statements about God will keep one from idolatry, which description of God then should a Calvinist use? Barth’s insight comes by considering a fundamental question: how has God most clearly revealed himself to sinful humanity? Has it been through his written word, his work of creation, or perhaps through the internal testimony of his existence that each person carries innately (Romans 1:18-32)? Barth asks, “Who and what is the God who rules and feeds His people, creating and maintaining the whole world for its benefit, and guiding it according to His own good pleasure -according to the good pleasure of His will as it is directed toward this people?”(7) Asking these questions of a wandering Israelite following Moses through the Sinai desert would probably produce the answer “Yahweh is known through his mighty works.” But these mighty works are more than simply mighty in themselves, pointing toward an ominous deity. They point ultimately to God’s mightiest work, the person and ministry of Jesus Christ. Barth explains that according to Scripture “our attention and thoughts should and must be concentrated, then from first to the last the Bible directs us to the name of Jesus Christ.”(8) When we read of any mighty biblical work, each instance is a signpost, (or better stated, an immense cosmic billboard) pointing to Christ.

Here we come to the heart of Barth’s hermeneutic on election: “Theology must begin with Jesus Christ, and not with general principles, however better, or at any rate, more relevant and illuminating, they may appear to be: as though He were a continuation of the knowledge and Word of God, and not its root and origin, not indeed the very word of God itself.”(9) He explains that the church falls into error whenever it attempts to go beyond this name.(10) When a Calvinist says “God” what should immediately flood through his mind and soul is the name Jesus Christ, “For if it is true that in Jesus Christ there dwells the fullness of the Godhead bodily (Col.2:9)” we must avoid any abstractions of God.(11) “In the name and person of Jesus Christ we are called upon to recognize the Word of God, the decree of God and the election of god at the beginning of all things, at the beginning of our own being and thinking, at the basis of our faith in the ways and works of God.”(12)

Strength Three: The Comfort of Election
If Jesus Christ is that to which the word “election” necessarily and dramatically points and finds fulfillment, the fact of him being sent because of the Father’s love as the divine Son becomes the starting point by which the term can best be grasped. Barth explains, “We must not seek the ground of this election anywhere but in the love of God.” “What takes place in this election is always that God is for us; for us, and therefore for the world which was created by Him, which is distinct from Him, but which is yet maintained by Him.”(13)

Accounts of his ministry then take on profound significance. When confronted with John 3:16, an argumentative Calvinist might direct his critic to passages like Romans 9 or Ephesians 1. Now, the Calvinist is not limited to a few proof texts, as if the Bible doesn‘t testify to the same truth in each passage. “As electing love it can never be hatred or indifference, but always that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life… this much is certain, that in this election (in giving Himself to this work, and in electing as the object of this work the man Jesus from among the world of men, and in Him the whole race) God loved the world.”(14) This is why Barth can speak of election as necessarily speaking of the Gospel. Election is God’s love. Barth’s point should not be sidetracked by a debate on the extent of the atonement. Rather, election, if intimately connected to Jesus, drapes the entire theological concept in the love of God. Election is the way in which “God has truly loved the world.” (15)

This hearkens back to how the early Reformers such as Calvin could refer to the usefulness and the sweetest fruit of this doctrine. It teaches us to place full trust in the mercy of God and inclines us to true humility.(16) It undercuts the tendency to scrupulosity in which a believer questions his own election. “Has God elected me?” rather finds the compassionate face of Jesus pulling the sinking sinner out of the dark night of the soul. The emphasis shifts from whether a philosophically abstract deity before the creation of the world wrote one’s name in the book of life to the cry of the desperate man looking into the face of Jesus exclaiming “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!”

Each of these three strengths are important insights. Which Christian would want to defend an abstract deity rather than the person of Christ? Certainly, the martyrs of Christianity went to their deaths for more than philosophic speculation. Which Christian would deny that Christ is the clearest revelation of God? Which Christian doesn’t want to bask in the security that Christ died for him and his election is certain? While these points ring true, there is another side to Barth’s insights.

Weakness One: Can God Only Be Defended Using the Bible?
In section one it was argued that the defending of an ambiguous deity or speaking of God in general leads to, and is characteristic of idolatry. Barth says, “we must also assert that we do not exhaustively define or describe God when we identify Him with irresistible omnipotence. Indeed, if we make this identification in abstracto, we do not define or describe God at all.”(17) In speaking of the doctrine of election, Barth directs any inquiry as to the data to the pages of sacred scripture: “The very facts which we consider must be sought not in the realm of our experience but in Scripture, or rather in the self-revelation of God attested in scripture.”(18)

But in turning to the pages of sacred scripture, Paul violates the very principle so zealously put forth by Barth. In Acts 17 we find Paul in dialog with the men of Athens. It was an awareness of their idolatry that provoked him to speak not only of God in general terms, but to also quote from their very poets. “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth” speaks of God generally as creator. “He does not live in temples built by hands” speaks of his otherness to humanity. “He is not served by human hands as if he needed anything” speaks of his omnipotence. Paul then speaks generally of God’s providence: “From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live.” Paul continues by pouring Christian meaning into the sayings of the poets Epimenides and Aratus.

This leads one to question if Barth’s criticism of Lorraine Boettner was justified. Boettner’s point was only to express the fact that even some non-Christian religions have a general understanding of God as that which determined both the past and future. In later chapters of The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination, Boettner goes on to distinguish predestination from fatalism.(19) Barth makes no reference to this later exposition from Boettner. Based on the example of Paul, a Christian can certainly take a bankrupt pagan currency and pour value into it. Rather than serving idolatry, abstract statements about God find their meaning defined by the God of the Bible.

Weakness Two: Is The God of the Bible Only Defined by Jesus?
Section two above demonstrated Barth’s Christocentric hermeneutic pervading his treatment of election. In the very first pages of section 32 of his Church Dogmatics, speaking of the name “Jesus” and the path taken to define God, Barth warns “For as we proceeded along that path, we found that that name was the very subject, the very matter, with which we had to deal. In avoiding the different sources of error, we saw that they had one feature in common: the negligence or arbitrariness with which even in the Church the attempt was made to go past or beyond Jesus Christ in the consideration and conception of God, and in speech about God.”(20)

Certainly Barth is correct on the centrality of Jesus to the Christian message. The Lord himself testifies that the entirety of the Old Testament Scriptures were about him (Luke 24:27, John 5:39;). However, the concentration on Jesus to the extent that the Father and Holy Spirit play supporting roles in election could lead to doctrinal imbalance. Paul says that the Holy Spirit within us allows us to cry “Abba, Father” and that same Spirit testifies with our Sprit that we are children of God (Rom. 8:15-16). The Father sends and gives the Son to us (Rom. 8:32) in his work of predestination (Rom. 8:28-30). Praise is given to “God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ who has blessed us in the heavenly realms” (Eph. 1:3). That same Father “chose us in him before the creation of the world,” “Through Jesus Christ in accordance with his pleasure and will” (Eph. 1:4-5). Thus, speaking of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in regard to election can not be thought of as speaking of God in abstraction, but as speaking of God biblically. The concentration in election should not be centered on Christ alone. Each member of the Trinity plays a distinctive important role.

Weakness Three: Balancing the Comfort of Election With God’s Righteousness
In section three above, the comfort as provided by the doctrine of election was put forth. Barth speaks throughout his text as God’s election being an emphatic” Yes!” rather than a judgmental “No!”: “When God says Yes to the creature, He does say Yes; without any if or but, without any afterthought or reservation, not temporarily but definitively, with a fidelity which is not partial and temporal, but total and eternal. Once the election has taken place, there is not further question to the validity or non-validity of this Yes. There is no further anxiety as to how such a Yes can be fashioned or maintained. There is no further despair in the face of the ever-present and total impossibility of living by one’s own strength in the light of this Yes.”(21)

Indeed, the emphatic “Yes!” is prone to abuse and antinomianism, but this charge plagues all varieties of Calvinism and isn’t particular to Barth’s formulation. Barth doesn’t deny the reality of sin, nor does he deny that in his work of atonement Christ takes on the sins of the world.(22) He does though appears to minimize the third use of the law in the life of the believer. In a lengthy discussion Barth chastises those who look at experience as a determiner of Christian faith. Why do some believe and others reject the faith? Appealing to Calvin Barth states, “He knew too, that the election of a man cannot be gathered with absolute certainty from a fact of experience.”(23) That is, one cannot simply look at the sinful nature of a person and determine whether his election (or lack thereof) with certainty. This is indeed true. No one can peer infallibly into the soul of another.

But such a paradigm needs to infuse and make sense of biblical exhortations and descriptions. 1 Peter 2 speaks of those who “stumble because they disobey the message - which is also what they were destined for.” Peter certainly had an ostensive group in mind. Jude likewise recognizes the condemnation of certain men that had been written about long ago (v.4), and exhorts his readers to beware of them, yet another indication that outward appearance, while not an infallible guide for the certainly of election or reprobation, does at least have some value, at least it did for the biblical writers.

Paul says in 2 Corinthians 13:5-6, “Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves. Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you unless of course, you fail the test? And I trust that you will discover that we have not failed the test.” 2 Peter calls us to be eager to make our election and calling sure (2 Pet. 1:10). This is not an apostolic exhortation to morbid scrupulosity, but rather, as Calvin says, serves to prove the assurance of faith. Barth’s system though appears to have no category for such statements.

The issues raised above from Karl Barth writings on election represent basic problems within Christian theology. The first strength / weakness revolves around the issue of the use of general revelation. Does nature tell us anything infallible of certain about God? Or, should only the Bible define who God is? Can fallen humanity know anything truly about God without being regenerate? The second strength / weakness addresses the problems with understanding God’s revelation of himself as Trinity. How does a finite mind conceive of God? Should one person of the Trinity be focused on more than the other? The third strength / weakness addresses how does one ostensively recognize a true believer? Is it possible at all from a finite perspective to know with certainty who our brother in Christ is? How do we know anything with certainty about another person?

All these issues show themselves in any careful study of election. The weaknesses show that each Christian needs to dig deeper below the surface of any answers -to recognize not only their strengths, but their limitations, and mold them to each situation God almighty places us in. Theology isn’t simply a one-time event, but a life long pursuit of discipline. A theologian must recognize that any easy theological answer is probably too good to be true. The weaknesses speak to those who yearn for easy answers, who worship Christ with their heart, but not their head.

On the other hand, an argumentative Calvinist could truly benefit from the strengths presented, as they express the desire for Christians to love, not only each other, but have a heart of compassion for those placed in their lives by a sovereign God. Discussing election is more than philosophical abstraction. The strengths of Barth’s views on election come in their existential reality, as they are played out in the daily lives of believers. Thus the strengths of Barth’s view on election speak to those with intellect but lack in other areas, like compassion, empathy, and ultimately love. An argumentative Calvinist sometime argues for the sake arguing, missing the fact that Barth is indeed correct when he says election is the sum of the Gospel, and that Gospel is God’s love for mankind.


1. Lorraine Boettner, The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company), 2.
2. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II.2 The Doctrine of God (Study Edition) (Princeton: T & T Clark, 2010) 36-37.
3. Ibid.
4. Ibid., 48.
5. Ibid., 50.
6. Ibid.
7. Ibid., 53.
8. Ibid.
9. Ibid., 2.
10. Ibid.
11. Ibid., 3.
12. Ibid., 104.
13. Ibid., 26.
14. Ibid.
15. Ibid., 27.
16. Calvin’s Institutes, III, 21, 1. cf. Barth, 36.
17. Barth, 45.
18. Ibid., 38 cf. 34-35.
19. Boettner, 205 - 207.
20. Ibid., 2.
21. Ibid., 31.
22. Ibid., 130-131.
23. Ibid., 40.

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