The evolution of Karl Barth’s mature doctrine of election


Karl Barth (in the middle) at Aberdeen in 1937

on the occasion of his giving the Gifford lectures.

The evolution of Barth’s mature doctrine of election was part of an ongoing conversation that went back many years. Barth recalled this in 1956: “Pierre Maury and I had of course often spoken of this problem.”[1] … Another indication of an anterior grappling and ongoing conversation around this issue is also borne out in Barth’s lecture cycle at Göttingen, published as The Theology of the Reformed Confessions, in which he was treating “Reformed doctrine as a whole” and within this broad overview looking at what he called “the positive doctrine of Christianity.” On 21st of June 1923 (fourteen years before his Gifford Lectures of 1937–8)[2] he was focusing on the Scots Confession of 1560:

It is truly regrettable that in the seventeenth century the Scots Confession became obsolete and today only has historical significance . . . We note how clearly the meaning of the doctrine of predestination is handled. This doctrine treats of what God does, not what happens to the human person . . . We see how the unclassical problem of the assurance of salvation, this problem whose very emergence is an indicator of confusion and wrong questions, never commands any attention in this context. That is certainly the best thing that can happen to it. It is my opinion that, because of all of this, the Scots Confession, like a few others, may speak to us as a normative and model confession for our pursuit of the question of the positive doctrine of Christianity.[3]

It would appear that predestination had been a topic of conversation between Barth and Maury over many years before 1936, but that Barth himself had seen certain “flaws” that troubled him. He considered, as he was to say in his 1937 Gifford Lectures, that Article Eight of the Scots Confession, “Of Election,” seemed at first sight to be of a purely Christological character, something which he considered to be a noteworthy innovation in the way the subject matter was ordered:

By this arrangement its authors have made it known unambiguously that they wish the whole body of material which is called the doctrine of predestination to be explained through Christology and conversely Christology to be explained with the doctrine of predestination.[4]

He concluded his lecture on God’s Decision and Man’s Election by claiming that

The Scottish confession is right in principle in the position it takes. God’s eternal decree and man’s election and thus the whole of what is called the doctrine of predestination cannot but be misunderstood unless it is understood in its connection with the truth of the divine human nature of Jesus Christ.[5]

[1]. Karl Barth’s original foreword to Maury’s Predestination.

[2]. Barth, The Knowledge of God and the Service of God.

[3]. Barth, The Theology of the Reformed Confessions, 133.

[4]. Barth, The Knowledge of God and the Service of God, 69.

[5]. Ibid., lecture VII.

Karl Barth, The Theology of the Reformed Confessions. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2002.

________ The Knowledge of God and the Service of God According to the Teaching of the Reformation: Recalling the Scottish Confession of 1560. Translated by J. L. M. Haire and Ian Henderson. The Gifford Lectures, University of Aberdeen 1937–1938. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1938.


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