Monday, November 28, 2016

Reader Response: Church Dogmatics ch VII (12)

In the second-to-last sub-section of this chapter, Barth discusses The determination of the elect - that is to say, the question "to what is he elected?" (410).  What character or goal is given to the elect individual by virtue of his election?  It will not be surprising to anyone who has vaguely followed thus far that "the comprehensive and in every respect decisive answer to the question is given in the fact that an elect man is in any case elect in and with and by and for Jesus Christ" (410).  Jesus Christ is for him, and therefore "the purpose for which he is chosen is to be the kind of man for whom Jesus Christ is" (410).  But this implies also a relation to the community of faith.  "Thus every election of individuals is an election in the sphere of the community" (410).  Indeed, "no individual can be His unless he is also theirs" (411) - there is no belonging to Jesus which does not entail belonging also to his people.

But what is the determination of those who are elect in Christ and in his community?  For what is the elect individual elected?  I will try to enumerate the things that Barth mentions as particular determinations, although he doesn't himself list them in this way. Firstly, "the determination of the elect consists in the fact that he allows himself to be loved by God" (411).  He is given this determination in and with Christ, whose own determination is "to be the One loved of God from and to all eternity" (411).  Secondly, being determined as the recipient of God's love, he is also determined for blessedness.  "God chooses the elect from eternity and for eternity, that he may catch up a beam or a drop of His own blessedness and live as its possessor, that he may rejoice in Him and with Him" (412).  This, too, is the determination of Christ, as particularly revealed in his resurrection and ascension.  Thirdly, then, he is determined for service, and this service consists of gratitude.  "Gratitude is the response to a kindness which cannot be itself be repeated or returned, which can therefore only be recognised and confirmed as such by an answer that corresponds to it and reflects it" (413).  Fourthly, he is determined for praise.  "He is elected in order to break forth with his weak voice, but with all his voice, into the rejoicing which has its source in the divine election of grace, and courses through all God's creation, accompanying all his works and ways" (414).

Fifthly, but decisively for Barth's whole presentation, "each elect individual is as such a messenger of God" (415).  This is the shape of the service which the elect render in their blessedness and gratitude and praise: they are sent to be apostles.  "The reason for this is the election of Jesus Christ to be an apostle of grace" (415).  The elect individual is not simply to rejoice in his own election and blessedness, but he has to look out to those who do not yet know their own election in Christ.  "When he thinks of them, he has to reckon with the recollection that their lost life outside the circle of proclamation and faith displays the rejection which would necessarily have fallen on him, too, apart from Jesus Christ; and with the expectation that the work of the Holy Spirit is the result of the decision which has also been made about their human life.  And in this recollection and expectation he has to address them" (415).  The elect individual is not the electing God; he has not control over whether and how people respond.  But as the elect individual, elect in The Elect, he is determined as one who follows Christ in bearing witness to the divine decision made in Him.

Barth sees in the election of the individual "an opening up and enlarging of the (in itself) closed circle of the election of Jesus Christ and his community in relation to the world - or (from the standpoint of the world) an invasion of the dark kingdom of the lies which rule in the world, a retreat and shrinkage of its godless self-glorification" (417).  In other words, far from being a restrictive concept (only the elect will be saved), election is an expansive concept - the election of each individual, as it is actualised in his call to faith, represents "the ongoing of the reconciling work of the living God" (417).  The circle of election is enlarged.  "It is [God's] concern what is to be the final extent of the circle" (417), and we cannot insist that it must ultimately include everyone.  "No such right or necessity can legitimately be deduced.  Just as the gracious God does not need to elect or call any single man, so He does not need to elect or call all mankind" (417).  The point here is that we are still dealing with the living God in the freedom of his grace, not with a metaphysical system of election.  However, neither can we impose any necessary limit on the circle of election - for in Christ we only know God's election as "a decision of His loving-kindness" (418).  Knowing God's electing grace in Christ, the elect individual has confidence in God's ability and will to call more and more to himself.  "He will never renounce the recognition of their (and his own) lost condition...  Nor will he renounce the confidence that the same grace is addressed to them to" (419).  It is up to God to decide the end result of the ministry of reconciliation; it is up to the elect individual to pursue that ministry.

The exegetical element of the sub-section falls into three parts.  First, Barth points out that in the OT the determination of the elect is always obscured by the fact that there is always a shadow - alongside Abel there is Cain, alongside David there is Saul etc.  Only in Jesus is this resolved (as discussed previously).  Second, he comments on the extent of election.  The salvation of all men is affirmed as God's will, citing 1 Tim 2:4 alongside 1 Cor 5:19, Jn 1:29 and 3:16-17,  and 1 Jn 2:2 amongst others.  "When we remember this, we cannot follow the classical doctrine and make the open number of those who are elect in Jesus Christ into a closed number to which all other men are opposed as if they were rejected" (422).  "And yet it is not legitimate to make the limitless many of the elect in Jesus Christ the totality of all men" (422).  It is a question of the freedom of the living God, but t the living God who has revealed himself in Christ - therefore, freedom, but always the freedom of the God who loves.  How many will be elect, in the end?  "It is enough for us to know and remember that at all events it is the omnipotent loving-kindness of God which decides this" (422).  The third part of the exegetical element is an in-itself very interesting exposition of the character of the apostolate in the gospels, which can perhaps for our purposes can be summarised in the observation on the calling of the first disciples that "when Jesus calls them to Him, He does not promise that He will make them Christians, or even that He will make them first Christians and then as such apostles; but He immediately promises that He will make them fishers of men..." (444) - in other words, the apostolate is as such the character of the elect individual and community.

In all this we see the impact of Barth's Christological reformulation of the doctrine of election.  Because the elect is Christ, and because all others are elect in him, their election necessarily means that they are elected to service and witness.  Their election implies their sending, so that others might come to know themselves as elect by hearing and believing their testimony.  This is in striking contrast to the classical doctrine, in which the absolute decree of God to election/reprobation implies a closed and not an open system, and therefore the danger of election and mission becoming separated and even contradictory.  There is still some obscurity here, and I wonder whether in some sense Barth hasn't just moved the mystery from eternity past (in the classical doctrine: why did God at that point elect some and not others?) to the present (why does God call some and not others?) - but at the least, the Christological basis gives a different flavour and feel to the doctrine which does seem to me to have better fit with the Biblical emphasis.  What do you think?


  1. I like the idea that God is always free to elect some more rather than being bound by decisions made in eternity past and am challenged by the way Barth catches up the church and every elect individual in that on-going mission.

    1. The thing I consistently find and love in Barth is a picture of the Living God - not frozen in eternity, not a prisoner of himself, but free and active and involved. And I agree, that somehow makes it more challenging that we are to be caught up in what he is doing as the medium of his electing work!

  2. You'd like this: