Monday, September 19, 2016

Reader Response: Church Dogmatics ch VII (2)

Before you start reading this, it would be worth your while to glance again at the synopsis here.

Having given us some orientation, Barth continues his treatment of the doctrine of election by looking at The Foundation of the Doctrine.  Where does it come from?  "We must at this point recall the basic rule of all Church dogmatics: that no single item of Christian doctrine is legitimately grounded, or rightly developed or expounded, unless it can of itself be understood and explained as a part of the responsibility of the hearing and teaching Church towards the self-revelation of God attested in Holy Scripture" (35).  In other words, it has to come from the Bible: it has to be "an exposition of what God himself has said and still says concerning himself" (35).

Barth rejects four erroneous foundations for the doctrine - two relatively quickly, and two in more depth.  Firstly, we cannot rely on church tradition - whilst it can be helpful, "it cannot be the subject and norm of dogmatic effort" (36).  Secondly, we cannot proceed on the basis that the doctrine is useful, for teaching or for the cure of souls (37).  This is a backwards procedure, substituting a goal for a foundation and so leaving everything in the air.  (Barth also remarks: "it can also happen that many Christians and theologians have a natural sympathy with particularly hard and mysterious and high-soaring teachings" [37].  Yes, that can happen).

The two more serious erroneous foundations are twins.  Thirdly, there is "the possibility of basing the doctrine on a datum of experience, presumed or actual" (38).  Barth has in mind the possibility of starting with the observation that, of the many who hear the gospel, only some respond positively.  He thinks that Augustine based his doctrine largely on this experience, and that it grew up as an explanation for it.  Calvin also comes in for some criticism in this regard - especially in so far as he sometimes seemed to be able to tell just who was elect and who was reprobate on the basis of their opinions or behaviour.  For Barth, this is to build theology on a foundation of anthropology, which is a bad business.

The fourth rejected foundation is "the concept of God as omnipotent will" (44).  It is not that Barth wishes to question in any way the omnipotence of God's will; he merely wishes to raise a protest against founding such a momentous doctrine on one isolated perfection of God.  What we end up with when we absolutise God's omnipotence in this way is not the God of the Bible, but an abstraction.

The third and fourth answers are more serious, and more seriously wrong, because they do at least "indicate the real problem of the doctrine: God as the subject of the election and man as the object" (52).  The problem is that as they stand they discuss an abstract God and an abstract man, and not the God of the Bible and the particular man addressed by him.  The true God not an abstract or unknown God, but is known in Jesus Christ.  Indeed, "as we have to do with Jesus Christ, we have to do with the electing God" (54).  Similarly, "in the Bible we are not concerned with the abstract concept of man" (55), or indeed the generality of mankind.  The Bible relentlessly points us to particular people - even Adam, who in some sense stands for all humanity, is the really the first particular person encountered by God, and the Old Testament presents a string of such people.  And at the end - the goal - of this string is Jesus Christ (58).

"If we would know what election is...we must look only upon the name of Jesus Christ and upon the actual existence and history of the people whose beginning and end are enclosed in the mystery of this name" (59).  Here is the foundation of the doctrine, right at the heart of God's revelation, where we see the electing God and the elected man.

Barth rounds off the sub-section with a critique of Lutheran and Reformed Orthodoxy (the Synod of Dort comes in for a beating here) for their failure to genuinely base their understanding of election on Christ.  At the end of the day, in both the great continental Protestant theological traditions election happens somewhere else, and although it might be considered sound pastoral advice to focus only on Christ, this becomes somewhat arbitrary.  After all, the true decision is made elsewhere, either in God's absolute decree or in human faith.  The critique is involved and fascinating, but the question it leaves me with is this: it is all very well to say that Christ is the foundation of the doctrine - everyone, I suppose, would say so - and all very well to critique others for not being consistent with this.  But what would it look like, really, to build a doctrine of election on the revelation of God in Christ?  And I suppose that is what the next few hundred pages will be about.


  1. Keep it coming Daniel!

    1. I'll do my best! It's not altogether easy to summarise... But it is helpful to me to have to try!