Densil Morgan on Karl Barth’s ‘epoch-making’ reconstruction of the traditional Reformed understanding of the doctrine of election

MORGAN-Densil (1)

Densil Morgan, SPCK Introduction to Karl Barth, 2011, pp 105-9.

The doctrine of election 

In turning to chapter 7 (comprising §§ 32–5) of Church Dogmatics, ‘The election of God’, which is the opening chapter of II/2 (published 1942), we come to another epoch-making portion of the theologian’s work: ‘When the history of the theology of the twentieth century is written … I am confident that the greatest contribution of Karl Barth to the development of church doctrine will be located in the doctrine of election.’ [1] As a Reformed theologian, Barth was both drawn to the concept of election while very conscious of the difficulties the traditional doctrine posed. Yet he had formulated his basic principles which, as it happened, were wholly compatible with a notion of election, as long as it were defined wholly in terms of Jesus Christ. The insight he had gained via his friend Pierre Maury at the Calvin Conference in Geneva in 1936 had already given him pause to think: ‘His address at once made a profound impression on me … One can certainly say that it was he who contributed decisively to giving my thoughts at this point their fundamental direction.[2] Barth had shared his preliminary reflections with the audience of his Gifford Lectures in Aberdeen a year later. Now he expressed them fully, with immense creativity and poise. Despite drawing much from Augustine and Calvin, Barth found himself having to cast the doctrine in a radically new mould: ‘As I let the Bible itself speak to me on these matters, as I meditated on what I seemed to hear, I was driven irresistibly to reconstruction’ (CD II/2 x). With Christ not only as the mirror of human election (as Calvin had so aptly claimed) but also its basis, means and content as well, there was no reason why the doctrine could not be positively affirmed: ‘The election of grace is the sum of the gospel … The election of grace is wholly the gospel … It is the very essence of all the good news’ (CD II/2 13–14). This was hardly the way the teaching had been perceived in the past, when it had been linked with notions of determinism, fatalism and an arbitrary decree whereby God had chosen some to be saved and allowed the rest to be damned. Having pondered Scripture afresh, not least the Old Testament conviction concerning Israel’s election as a light to the nations and St Paul’s mighty reasoning in Romans, he became convinced that the duality of election and reprobation, when severed from the all-embracing nature of Christ’s atoning sacrifice, could not be sustained: ‘In the Holy Scripture there is no parallelism of this kind in the treatment and proclamation of the divine election and rejection’ (CD II/2 16). The traditional supposition was that the Father, in issuing the redemptive decree, had done so with a view that the Son would become the saviour of the world. The function of the Son was responsive to the Father rather than having shared in the eternal accord. Yet Christ is the one in whom all things eternally occur: ‘As we have to do with Jesus Christ, we have to do with the electing God’ (CD II/2 54). Christ is not the one who merely responds to the Father’s choice but is active in making that choice from the beginning. And as Christ becomes one with all of humanity, humanity lies within the scope of God’s sovereign mercy, love and grace from the start. ‘Election is that which takes place at the very centre of the divine Word’ (CD II/2 59). It is Christ, therefore, sharing fully and actively in the Father’s will, who ‘is the electing God’ (CD II/2 77). It is Christ, therefore, sharing fully and actively in the Father’s will, who ‘is the electing God’ (CD II/2 77).

The contentious implications of the older Calvinistic view had long been known. If God had elected only some to life, how could individuals know they were among the elect? Whereas John Calvin’s pastoral sensitivity, as well as his theological acumen, had prompted him to devise the concept of Christ being the mirror of our election, this was not enough. It did not remove the possibility of there being a decree that somehow bypassed Jesus Christ and in which he as saviour was not involved.

Even Calvin had spoken of the decretum absolutum (‘absolute decree’) as a decretum horribile (‘dreadful decree’): ‘If Jesus Christ is only elected and not primarily the elector, what shall we really know at all … of our election?’ (CD II/2 104). The assurance of salvation, such a vexing problem in the Reformed tradition, had therefore found a solution: ‘As we believe in him and hear his Word and hold fast by his decision, we can know with a certainty which nothing can ever shake that we are the elect of God’ (CD II/2 116).

The electing God and the elect man 

The concept of Christ being the electing God was, however, only half of the doctrine. In the Incarnation, the Logos of God had also become man. Nothing illustrates better Barth’s startling originality of thought within the bounds of otherwise highly traditional orthodoxy than the assertion that God the elector, namely, Christ, elects himself, but this time as humankind’s representative and substitute, and in so doing bears the wrath, judgement and damnation humankind has brought on itself: ‘The election of the man Jesus means … that a wrath is kindled, a sentence pronounced and finally executed, a rejection actualized’ (CD II/2 122). Double predestination in the older Calvinistic parlance was the belief that God had chosen some to be saved and others to be damned. It was a notorious doctrine that created endless controversy and strife. Rather than rejecting the concept outright Barth revolutionizes it, not by downplaying the notion of sin, judgement and righteousness but by centring it wholly on Christ. Damnation remains a fact, but it has been dealt with on the cross.

The rejection which all men incurred, the wrath of God under which all men lie, the death which all men must die, God in his love for men transfers from all eternity to him in whom he loves and elects them, and whom he elects at their head and in their place. (CD II/2 123)

As well as being the electing God, Christ was also the elect man in whom the whole of humankind exists and finds its fulfilment. In the light of such a reconstruction, which constituted ‘an absolutely astonishing overturning of the tradition’, [3] it is little wonder Barth could consider the doctrine of election to be a matter not of disconcertment but of comfort, indeed the very essence of all the good news.

It left, however, many questions unanswered. In dealing with the election of the community in § 34, Barth treats, not unexpectedly, the history of Israel and the Church, while § 35, on the election of the individual, discusses the enigma of those who seem not to be converted or, through their impenitence or continued rebellion, would seemingly put themselves outside of God’s reach. Famously, Barth refuses to espouse the doctrine of the apocatastasis, universalism or the ultimate restoration of all things. Damnation remains a possibility, despite Christ having taken the divine judgement for all people upon himself. It is, paradoxically, an impossible possibility, a ‘caricature and perversion’ (CD II/2 315), a ‘satanic possibility’ (CD II/2 316) whereby the individual may ‘choose the possibility which God has excluded by his election’ (CD II/2 316). Here, however, we are in the bounds of speculation. This is God’s concern, not ours. The thrust of the gospel is plain: ‘The decree of God is not obscure, but clear … This decree is Jesus Christ, and for this very reason it cannot be a decretum absolutum’ (CD II/2 158). Our concern is to witness to the gospel and to share the knowledge of God, trusting in ‘the solidarity of the elect and the rejected in the one Jesus Christ’ (CD II/2 347).

[1] Bruce L. McCormack, ‘Grace and Being’, in John Webster (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Karl Barth (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), pp. 92-100 (92).

[2] Karl Barth, ‘Foreword’, in Pierre Maury, Predestination and Other Papers (London: SCM Press, 1960), pp. 15-18 (16). See also p. 36 of the 2nd edition of  Election, Barth and the French Connection.

[3] Colin E. Gunton, The Barth Lectures (London: T & T Clark, 2007), p. 121.

Before being appointed Professor of Theology at University of Wales Trinity Saint David in 2010, Densil spent twenty two years at Bangor University, North Wales, where he was successively lecturer, senior lecturer, reader and professor. During that time he spent sabbatical terms in both Princeton and Oxford. He was British Academy Visiting Scholar at Princeton Theological Seminary in 2001, Visiting Scholar at Regent’s Park College, Oxford, in 2008, and during the same year was appointed member of the Center for Theological Inquiry at Princeton. In 2005 he was awarded the DD degree by the University of Wales on the basis of his published works. He was made Fellow of the Learned Society of Wales in 2011 and was honoured by the Gorsedd of Bards by being appointed member in 2012. Densil has published on Karl Barth, modern doctrine and twentieth century church history.

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