Barth’s many universalist statements in his chapter on election should be understood in terms of the proclamation of the gospel – Michael O’Neil



14 years ago Michael O’Neil, at the time a doctoral student at Murdoch University, Perth, Western Australia, wrote an essay on “Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Election” in Evangelical Quarterly, 76:4 (2004), 311-326. He concluded his paper thus:

“Karl Barth’s doctrine of election constitutes a massive attempt to overcome the problematic decretum absolutum and so restore to the doctrine its essential character as gospel. His Christo­logical orientation of his doctrine has served to bring a correction to the classical exposition of the Reformed tradition. In place of its doctrine of the double decree, Barth asserts an objective universal reconciliation in the eternal union of God and humanity in Jesus Christ, actualised in the incarnation and atonement, with the result that none are rejected.

It is incorrect, however, to limit Barth’s intent to the intellectual correction of an abstruse theological construction, for his formulation also bears significant ecclesial and ethical ramifications. First, Barth’s doctrine serves powerfully to encourage a potent proclamation of the gospel, focusing on the gracious initiative of God exemplified in the objective atoning death of Jesus Christ for all humanity. The Church can, indeed must, press the message of the universality of God’s love and call without hesitance or reservation:  all are chosen and have been claimed without exception for God’s Kingdom, and are thereby called to yield themselves with unreserved dependence upon God in grateful response for his   grace.

Second, Barth’s doctrine bears practical fruit in Christian living by forging an inseparable link between Christian confession and Christian life, and so helps counter the widespread vapidity in contemporary Christian commitment. It is not by accident that Barth follows his chapter on ‘The Election of God’ with another on ‘The Command of God’ for, as he insists, the two concepts belong together. Barth insists that we are elect to membership in the community and to participation in its ministry, and to the form of life established by Jesus Christ which consists in obedience to Command of God”.

He wrote to me recently saying that in his honours dissertation of 2001 “one of the things I argued then was that Barth’s many universalist statements in his chapter on election should be understood in terms of the proclamation of the gospel; that is, we are to preach the universal and objective reconciliation accomplished in Christ: the fate of those who do not live in obedience to their election, however, remains in God’s hands, and that there are also many statements in the chapter which speak of the (impossible) judgement which still threatens them”.

Michael is now the director of Research and head of the Christian Thought Department at the Baptist Seminary (Vose) in Perth, Western Seminary  &

He has studied at and been an active member of Vose since the late 1990s. Before commencing at Vose, Michael served in various churches large and small for twenty years, in team pastor, sole pastor, and senior minister roles. He is hoping to be able to contribute an essay to the second edition of “Election, Barth and the French Connection”.

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