Monday, November 21, 2016

Reader Response: Church Dogmatics ch VII (11)

This week's sub-section bears the title The elect and the rejected.  At this point, we are moving beyond (although never away from!) the Christological basis of the doctrine to answer the question "what is it that makes individuals elect men (in Jesus Christ and by means of his community)?" (340).  Barth's first answer is simply that these particular men stand in a special relationship with God: their being is particularly determined to conform to his own (340-345).

But what does this mean in their lived experience?  "To the distinction, peculiar to the elect, of God's relationship to them and their relationship to God, there corresponds objectively their difference from other men.  This difference is their calling" (345).  Concretely, this means that they are able to hear the proclamation of the community, and that in them this proclamation meets with (or perhaps awakens?) faith.  The difference between the elect and other men is simply that they hear the good news of their election in Jesus Christ and by faith are assured that this is indeed their election.  By the work of the Spirit, these particular men are made witnesses to the election of Jesus Christ by the 'activation' of their own election through faith.

By contrast, the 'rejected' (and for Barth the scare quotes will always be necessary when it comes to this term) have no positive determination.  By contrast with the elect, who are determined as witnesses to the truth, the 'rejected', not possessing the Spirit or faith, and being unable to hear the proclamation of their own election in Christ, live in a way which lies against this truth.  That this is a lie is important: "those who undertake the attempt [to live as if non-elected, to live against and without God] may indeed lie - but can only lie - against the divine election of grace" (346).  The lie cannot actually render the truth any less true, even for them.

What is striking is that for Barth the elect and the 'rejected' belong together, "in the sphere of the divine election of grace" (346).  This certainly does not remove the distinction between them, but it does mean that on the hand and the other they attest Jesus Christ.  "Because this One is the Elect and the Rejected, He is - attested by both - the Lord and Head both of the elect and also of the rejected" (347).  On the one hand willingly and to their own joy and salvation, and on the other hand unwillingly and to their own misery and destruction, human beings witness to Christ.

That unity leads to "a very definite recollection for the elect and an equally definite expectation for others" (347).  The recollection for the elect is that their distinction as God's elect belongs primarily and properly to Jesus Christ.  They cannot stand on their election as if there were something in them that made them different from others; they can only stand on Jesus Christ.  But that leads directly to the expectation which they can have for others.  If they themselves stand only on Jesus Christ, they acknowledge that it is because Jesus Christ has become the rejected one for them and in their place - that he himself is the Rejected one.  But this is true of all the others.  They can only be the 'rejected', because the genuinely Rejected is Christ Jesus.  Their lie is serious, and it stands in the shadow of his rejection - it is a real danger and threat - and yet behind it all is Jesus Christ.  Therefore the elect "in view of their own election and in view of the Rejected one who has taken all their sins to Himself" have an expectation of all those others - "that this distinction [i.e. election] may also become theirs, no matter who they are or wish to be" (349-50).

In other words, the elect and the 'rejected' never stand over against each other without the elect at least being aware of their deep solidarity, and therefore the possibility that the 'rejected' will also be the elect.  (I'm tempted to say that Barth regards the continuation of their 'rejection' as impossible, but he doesn't exactly say that here; besides, he does often talk about people doing the impossible thing when they choose sin and rebellion, so maybe that doesn't help).  It is actually only in Jesus Christ that we truly see election and rejection brought face to face "in one and the same person" (351), and it is from him that we learn that rejection is for the sake of election.  "Thus Jesus Christ is the Lord and Head and Subject of the witness both of 'the elect' and also of 'the rejected'.  For all the great difference between them, both have their true existence solely in Him" (353).

Barth's treatment here is interesting because he does seem, very briefly, to reintroduce the classical problem of why some believe and others do not - it is the concrete expression of the particular relationship to which some are determined by God, effected by the Holy Spirit.  The difference is that Barth think that this has been stripped of its menacing dualism.  Nobody can say that because someone has not believed they are not in any sense elect; nobody can (or ought to) agonise over whether they are personally elect or not.  Christ is the elect one, as he is the rejected one, and in him every human being is rejected (as a sinful rebel) and elected (as a child of God).  Nevertheless, I don't think Barth can entirely avoid the fact that God, in his sovereignty, makes a distinction here between one person and another - perhaps he doesn't want to avoid it.  By placing the elect and the 'rejected' in the same sphere, he keeps open the possibility of God's overflowing mercy, without in any sense guaranteeing it to those who live the lie.  It's a more dynamic portrait of election, perhaps, than the classical one, and it is therefore more open to God's future dealings (and the possibility of man's future faith).

The sub-section concludes with a long and fascinating look at the Old Testament in its treatment of election and rejection.  In three examples - the two birds and goats in Leviticus 14 and 16, the two kings Saul and David, and the two 'prophets' and kingdoms of 1 Kings 13 - Barth shows that the elect and the rejected are bound together in the OT picture.  The darkness of rejection tinges even the elect (is David really better than Saul?), but the light of the elect falls even on the rejected (the prophet of Bethel is buried with the man of God of Judah and is preserved even in death).  In fact, no figure in the OT is truly the elect (as witnessed, for example, by the fact that even the elect king David must look to his son for the fulfilment of the promise).  Barth's question is: if the subject of the OT is not Jesus Christ - if these stories and rituals are not ultimately about him - what are they about?  If it is not about him, is it about anything at all?


  1. Still with you... just!

    1. My reflection is that the closer Barth gets to the 'classical question' - why do some believe and others do not? - the more obscure he gets. I'm not quite clear how his answer doesn't collapse into the sort of agnosticism which he condemns so strongly earlier on. In fact, if everyone is elected in Jesus Christ, it becomes even more mysterious and inexplicable that not everyone responds with faith. So I'm not really sure this account of election works in detail, no matter how much I enjoy the big picture scope of it.