Monday, November 14, 2016

Reader Response: Church Dogmatics ch VII (10)

"We shall now seek finally to do justice to the conception of the divine election in its relation to human beings" (306).  I don't know how that sentence sounded to Barth when he first wrote it (more German, probably), but in my mind as we crawl into the final section of the chapter there is a certain weary emphasis on the word "finally".  Well, here we are.  But in case we were tempted to think that the rest has just been preamble, we find ourselves back at the beginning, with the title Jesus Christ, the Promise and its Recipient.  Because for Barth, although the election of individual human beings is a crucial end point of the doctrine (and he even suggests it could helpfully be written in reverse, starting with the individual elect human being, so long as the logical order was respected), the essential work has already been done.  In the election of Jesus Christ, we really do see the very beginning of all the ways and works of God ad extra.

But does this leave space for the election of the individual?  Doesn't the election of Christ displace every other individual human being?  Barth says no.  "The individual who as the original object of election is for all the rest Another does not deprive them by that in which He precedes them, but preceding them in everything - He is indeed the real object of election - He is everything for them and gives them all things" (310).  Far from displacing the election of the individual (or for that matter the community), it is in the election of Christ that the election of the individual (and the community) is grounded - "whereas without him it could only emerge from nothing and proceed to nothing" (310).

Barth then considers two aspects to human individuality which it is necessary to explore both to clarify the doctrine and to guard against misunderstandings flowing from contemporary individualism and collectivism (contemporary to him, of course - but the basic issues haven't gone away).  On the one hand, "men have an 'individuality' in relation to the human group: the family, the nation, the state, society..." (313).  In this sense, we recognise that the doctrine of election has nothing to do with any of these groups - there are no elect nations ("even the Israelite nation is simply the first (transitory) form of the community" [313]).  "It is individuals who are chosen and not the totality of men.  And God seeks, calls, blesses and sanctifies the many, the totality, the natural and historical groups and humanity itself, in and through the individual" (313).  In this sense, election is to do with individuals.

But the other aspect clarifies that the elect individual is not chosen because of "the particularity in which he stands out above his membership of the group" (315).  It is only grace.  And that is seen when we realise that the individual "does not accept as grace, and gratefully correspond to, the distinction and dignity conferred on him by the one and only God" (315).  Rather, he seeks to justify himself, seeks to live for himself, seeks to be "the man who is isolated in relation to God" (316).  There can be no question of this individual warranting or meriting God's election, or attracting because of anything in himself.  God's election "confronts man - every man - as one who is isolated over against God by his own choice, and who in and with this isolation must be rejected by God" (316).  In the face of this defiance - this defiant act of individualism - God's election can only be grace.

But what does the community have to say, then?  Firstly, it knows about the awful possibility that the individual can choose to be isolated over against God.  It knows that "he can become a sinner and place himself within the shadow of divine judgement" (317).  It knows this, "but it knows, above all, about Jesus Christ...  It knows men, therefore, only to the extent that it knows Jesus Christ." (319).  So the community knows where the rejection which this man merits, the judgement which he chooses for himself, has been executed - and it knows therefore that in Jesus Christ "their desire and undertaking are pointless in so far as their only end can be to make them rejected.  And this is the very goal which the godless cannot reach, because it has already been taken away by the eternally decreed offering of the Son of God..." (319).  The community has to witness to the man who places himself in the shadow of God's judgement that this choice has been taken away from him, that he cannot choose rejection, that in Jesus Christ he can only recognise his own election.  "The community has no control over the outcome of this.  It cannot determine what man will make of it" (320).  But since it cannot distinguish between those who will accept it and reject it - and since in Christ it can have no desire to do so in any ultimate sense - it proclaims to all their election in Christ Jesus.

Now of course Barth knows that "between the being of the elect and his life as such there lies the event and the decision of the reception of the promise" (321).  It is not a matter of indifference whether the individual responds to the promise in faith or not.  It is the question of whether he will take up his life as one of the elect or not, whether he will gratefully move out of the terrible shadow of God's wrath or not.  And at this point, it becomes important to realise that this is not addressed to 'the individual' in the abstract, but to me and to you: "The promise says to those who hear or read it: Thou mayest not hear or read at this point something said about another.  Thou art not in the audience but in the centre of the stage.  This is meant for thee.  Thou art 'this' individual.  Thou art isolated from God, and therefore a godless man.  Thou art threatened.  And yet thou standest indeed under a wholly new determination.  It was for thee that Jesus Christ Himself bore the divine rejection and its real and terrible consequences.  Thou art the one who has been spared from enduring it.  And it is for thee that Jesus Christ is the elect man of God and arrayed in the divine glory.  Eternal life and fellowship with God await thee.  Jesus Christ died and rose for thee.  It is thou who art elect with Him and through Him.  And now that all this has been said to thee, it is the event of what thou for thy part shalt say and do (or not say, and not do) which decides whether the ancient curse will again be laid on thee with what is said, or the eternal blessedness will come on thee in utter newness" (324).

The sub-section concludes with a historical review of how things went wrong when people tried to work out how to spot the elect, or prove their own election to themselves.  In essence, Barth thinks that if the base of your doctrine of election is an absolute decree dividing humanity in two, you will always be anxious over these things.  But if you recognise Christ as the base, then anxiety is swept away, and all rests on him.

I think we're already starting to see the root of Barth's agnosticism with regard to the extent of salvation.  He knows that it matters what we choose when faced with the promise.  But over and above that, he knows that Jesus Christ has done away with our opposition to God.  In the end, he has to leave the outcome with God - but with a more hopeful and joyful stance towards the apparently (or not-yet) converted than might accompany a more traditional Calvinist conclusion.

But can he answer, and is he interested to answer, the question of why some believe and others don't?  I guess we'll find out.