Address by Professor Christiaan Mostert at the launch of Election, Barth, and the French Connection: How Pierre Maury Gave a ‘Decisive Impetus’ to Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Election

UD Teaching for Learning Event 2016-110 Chris M Simon H

Address by Emeritus Professor Christiaan Mostert [1] to launch Election, Barth, and the French Connection: How Pierre Maury Gave a ‘Decisive Impetus’ to Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Election (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2016), Simon Hattrell (ed)

above- Professor Mostert with Simon Hattrell

I appreciate the invitation to speak at the launch of this book about two European theologians, one of whom you will certainly have heard of, Karl Barth, Swiss Reformed. The other one you have probably never heard of, Pierre Maury, French Reformed. There is a reason for bringing them together in this book, edited by Simon Hattrell, a theological educator from Tasmania. Fluent in French, he has translated two important essays by Maury on the subject of ‘election’ as well as revising another and wrote an introductory chapter. The book has some short tributes to Maury, including one by Barth, who wrote that Maury had ‘contributed decisively to giving [his] thoughts on this [subject] their fundamental orientation.’ (19) The final part of the book comprises four chapters by Barth-scholars: Matthias Gockel a German theologian at the University of Basel in Switzerland –­ and three members of the University of Divinity, Melbourne: Mark Lindsay, John Capper and John McDowell, who make insightful comparisons between Barth and Maury. [3]

Karl Barth was, without doubt a great theologian. Pope Paul VI described him as the greatest theologian since Thomas Aquinas; and I don’t think Barth’s position has yet been usurped. At the end of his essay on Barth, an ‘Afterword’ to these studies, John McDowell writes that what matters for Barth is the ‘next step’ beyond doing historical and textual study, viz. ­what the text witnesses to and what is really of interest: the substance, the matter, die Sache. Turning this into a question, is any given theologian, is Barth himself – and is this French theologian of Barth’s own era – theologically ‘interesting’ to their own church, indeed to the whole church?

By ‘theologically interesting’ I mean having something arresting to say about God, the God who is known in the gospel of Jesus Christ, or about things in the universe or this world or about any feature of our cultural or socio-political life in their relation to God. That lies at the core of a theological enterprise worthy of the name.

You may think that on the subject of ‘election’ there is not much chance of anyone being ‘theologically interesting’. In that case, you might benefit from a few pages of Barth on the subject. I remember vigorous arguments with more Calvinist peers in my teenage years about the subject of predestination, a doctrine which seemed grossly unfair to me, especially the idea of a double predes­tination: some to salvation, others to rejection. There was more heat than light in those discussions.

Some years ago, I had cause to read Barth on the subject of election (Vol II/2 of the Church Dog­matics). Instead of having my earlier prejudice confirmed, I discovered that Barth regarded election as ‘the sum of the Gospel.’ (10) Election is about grace; it is about the love of God; it is about a divine benefit or favour. Election is good news, because it is about Jesus Christ. Barth begins with a discussion about the election of Jesus Christ. (§33) He then goes on to discuss the election of the Community, ie. Israel and the Church together. (§34) Only then does he discuss the election of the individual. (§35)

Barth re-frames the whole discussion, beginning with Jesus Christ. It is not about an eternal decree that seems like an arbitrary exercise of omnipotence. It is about God’s turning to human­kind in grace. In God’s free grace, in Christ, God elects to be human, to relate to humankind and to join Godself to humanity. (94f.) It is about the incarna­tion and about the cross, in which for humankind there is salvation and life – this is the positive aspect of elec­tion – and in which God takes upon Godself, in Christ, rejection and death – the nega­tive side of election. This is Barth’s version of a double election; I venture to say, a considerable improvement on Calvin.

Election is christologically ­rewritten; it is given a ‘christological meaning and basis’, which Barth attributes to Pierre Maury, a French Reformed pastor and Professor of Theology in the Protestant Faculty in Paris. (II/2, 154) Barth makes specific reference to a lecture given by Maury in Geneva in 1936 at the International Congress of Calvinist Theology. The lecture was entitled, ‘Election et Foi’, and is now available for the first time in English, thanks to Simon Hattrell’s translation. Other papers, says Barth, ‘moved entirely within the circle of the tradi­tional formulations’ of this doctrine, but Maury’s lecture ‘stood out’ from all the others.

Several of the authors of the final chapters of the book, including Mark Lindsay, have traced the development of Barth’s own thinking about election from the early 1920s to its final articu­lation in Vol II/2 of the Church Dogmatics (1942). Until then there was (what Lindsay calls) a christological deficit; there was nothing in which to ground ‘salvific certainty.’ (112) Maury’s 1936 lecture insisted that ‘election is election in Christ.’ (35) In Christ ‘the hidden mystery of God becomes the revealed grace which is offered to us.’ (36) Its origin is in Christ; its ground is in Christ; and its goal is in Christ: that we should be conformed to his image. So election is entirely positive for humankind; it is negative only for Christ. In other words, the incarnation and the cross are God’s Yes to humankind; and God’s No falls on the Son who hangs on the cross for the sake of the world. This is why election is, for us, a joyful doctrine; John Capper has written his essay in this volume on precisely this theme.

Barth radically revised his view of election between 1936 and 1942. He takes up Maury’s christological turn and develops it further. Jesus Christ, divine and human, is the God who elects and the human person who is elected. It is he to whom we must look if we are to under­stand what election is about. And what we see, supremely on the cross, is the human being elected to fellowship with God and God, the Son, tasting the damnation, death and hell which humankind really brings upon itself. In Christ God elected our rejection and suffering as God’s own suffering. (II/2,164)

There are two other essays by Maury in this volume. The first is called ‘The Ultimate Decision.’ A decision is to be made by human beings about what they are given in Christ; it is about their being chosen. Ultimately our deciding is grounded in God’s election of humankind to fellowship with God. But our decision with regard to Christ is also a decision of final importance; and what is asked of us is ‘a decision with no holding back.’ (63)

The final essay by Maury is simply called ‘Predestination.’ It is a later essay (from 1954), a fuller systematic account. He states how much he, in turn, owes to Barth’s discussion of the subject. Many aspects of election are dealt with here, and Maury is no more afraid than Barth was to go against Calvin. He ends pastorally, with three sharp points. (1) We must not preach predestination: that would be a betrayal of the Gospel; we must preach Jesus Christ. (2) We must preach salvation, not damnation. (3) We must not be afraid to speak of the holy wrath of God, but we must also proclaim Christ’s victory over the forces of hell.

In the final essays one highlight is Mark Lindsay’s demonstration of the way in which Barth turns his doctrine of election into resistance against Nazism. Nazism, not least a significant part of the Christian Church in Germany, had appropriated the language of election to elevate the Aryan race, especially the German Volk, and to denigrate Jewry, to say nothing of ethnic cleansing. Among other things, Barth insists that the community that is elect in Christ includes both Israel and the church; it is a single community. (123) That continues to be important. In a substantial Afterword, John McDowell alludes to other contemporary questions that arise from Barth’s doctrine of election, not least in the doctrine of the Trinity; also on the question of the freedom of God. Complex and challenging questions are raised here.

Simon Hattrell is to be warmly thanked and congratulated on his work of writing, translating and editing, culminating in the publication of this volume. It is a solid achievement in each of these respects. It will be a considerable service to those who find the work of Barth a source of endless inspiration and challenge. But it also puts before a wider theological public the oppor­tunity for a second look at a doctrine far too readily consigned to the mistakes of Christian history, which, when considered from another angle, a christological one, is really, as Barth said, ‘the sum of the Gospel.’

In sending this book on its way, I wish it a good readership. May it challenge and inspire
ad maiorum Dei gloriam.

Emeritus Professor Christiaan Mostert

Melbourne, 2 November 2016

[1] Professor Mostert is internationally renowned for his theological scholarship, in particular his acclaimed work on the theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg. He was President of the Melbourne College of Divinity from 2006 to 2007, and a member of the University Council of the University of Divinity until his retirement in 2012.

[2] Dr Peter Sherlock, the Vice Chancellor of the University of Divinity, Melbourne, hosted this launch at Catherine Booth College of the Salvation Army.

[3] Matthias Gockel took a closer look at Maury’s thinking on election in comparison with Barth’s view. He maintains that, despite their principal agreement about the need to put the doctrine on a new Christological basis, minor differences remain. He canvasses a number of subtle changes of the French text in the German translation, which was undertaken by Barth’s confidante Charlotte von Kirschbaum, as well as the most significant translation changes raising the vexed question of interpretation in the task of translation.

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