Herbert Hirschwald – aka Hartwell (1894-1989) on Karl Barth’s doctrine of God’s Election of Grace.


In Densil Morgan’s Barth Reception in Britain, (T & T Clark, 2010), he describes the post WW 2 context of Barth studies in the British Isles.

“Very few people in Britain were in a position to keep up with this welter of publication, but one of them was the Confessing Church refugee Herbert Hirschwald (1894-1989), who had served in the German army during the Great War where he had been awarded the Iron Cross for bravery. Following legal training at Erlangen he had been appointed to the Prussian Supreme Court at the age of 32 to become the youngest High Court judge in his land. A committed Lutheran layman, he had joined the Confessing Church in 1934 and became immediately involved in the legal defence of Jews. Deprived of his professional status under the Nuremberg laws, he had come into contact with George Bell Bishop of Chichester…(subsequently moving to Great Britain).. His Oxford dissertation, though erudite and astute, remained unpublished while, following ordination (into the Congregational Church), his pastoral work among German refugees prevented him from accomplishing the sustained contribution to theological studies which he surely could have made. It was not until 1964 that he would issue his study The Theology of Karl Barth: an introduction under the Anglicised name of Herbert Hartwell”.

Below is an excerpt from Hartwell on Barth’s doctrine of God’s election of grace (CD II/2 par. 32-35): Herbert Hartwell, The Theology of Karl Barth: an Introduction, Gerald Duckworth & co-Ltd, London, 1964, pp 105-112.

To be truly Christian, in Barth’s view, the doctrine of God has to include another aspect of the reality of God. That aspect is manifested in the fact, revealed in Jesus Christ, that God stands in a definite relationship ad extra to another. This relationship is viewed by Barth as belonging to the Person of God as such, that is, to His reality, and therefore to the doctrine of God in the narrower sense of this concept, in as much as it rests upon a distinct attitude of God which, inherent in the very nature of God as  the One who loves in freedom, is expressed in His free and gracious decision before the creation of the world and of man to unite Himself in the person of His eternal Son with man in the man Jesus of Nazareth and in Him and through Him with the people represented by Him and, consequently, to determine Himself, that is, to elect Himself to fellowship with man and man to fellowship with Himself, and to do so quite concretely in the person of Jesus Christ.

Here we have arrived at Barth’s doctrine of God’s election of grace (CD II/2 par. 32-35), the doctrine of God as the One who from and to all eternity is the electing God in the aforesaid concrete sense. According to this teaching the Christian God is this God or He is not God at all. It is no exaggeration to say that the heart of Barth’s theology beats in this doctrine in which he radically departs from all past and present teaching on predestination, above all from Calvin’s doctrine of predestination. Contrary to everything which has been taught about this subject matter so far, Barth describes this doctrine as the sum of the gospel ‘because of all words that can be said or heard it is the best’ [1].

Again, he assigns to it a pre-eminent place in his Church Dogmatics in that, as God’s predestination not merely of man but originally and primarily, of Himself, he makes it an integral part of his doctrine of God, [2] thus giving it precedence over the doctrine of providence and even over the doctrine of creation, which in their turn are bound to be decisively influenced by this sequence. In the opinion of other theologians it belongs either to the doctrine of providence (Thomas Aquinas) or to the doctrine of creation (Calvin). [3] Breaking new ground in obedience to what he had discovered in his meditation upon the witness of the Bible to Jesus Christ, his theological exegesis of that witness leads him to transfer the crucial point of the Heilsgeschichte from the Incarnation of the Word of God to eternity and to find it in an eternal decree of God before time. This eternal decree, in other words, God’s eternal election of grace which is ultimately grounded in God’s innertrinitarian love and as God’s free grace in Jesus Christ represents itself as an overflowing of that love, is for Barth the eternal beginning and eternal basis of all the ways and works of God ad extra and therefore, as will subsequently be shown, in Jesus Christ. At the same time it is for him an expression of God’s eternal, free and unchanging grace towards man. For its precise meaning is that in it God resolved once for all to determine Himself in Jesus Christ for sinful man and sinful man for Himself and therefore to take upon Himself in Jesus Christ the rejection with all its consequences which sinful man deserves, while man, sinful man, is elected by Him in Jesus Christ to participation in His own glory. [4]

This decree, or rather the doctrine of God’s election of grace as a whole, is thus glad tidings, pure gospel, and not, as in Luther’s and Calvin’s teaching on double predestination, a mixed message of joy and terror, of salvation and damnation. It does not confront us, as in the teaching of the latter, with a decretum absolutum, whereby according to the inscrutable will of an absolute God, a Deus nudus absconditus, mankind either before the Fall (Supralapsarians) or after the fall (Infralapsarians) is divided into those who are elected for salvation and those who are rejected and, consequently, are destined to eternal damnation. On the contrary, it presents us with a decretum concretum, revealed to us and therefore known to us in the person and work of Jesus Christ, whereby God in the overflow of His love and in the freedom of His grace determined within Himself in His eternity before time and space, as we know them, that in his Son He would be gracious towards man even though man would rebel against Him and, therefore, in Jesus Christ submit in man’s place and for man’s salvation to the punishment of suffering and death which sinful man deserves. [5]

Barth’s ultimate objection to the concept of a decretum absolutum, in particular to Calvin’s teaching on double predestination, is that in the last analysis and contrary to God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ it tears God and Jesus Christ asunder and thereby loses sight both of the true nature of God as a loving God and of the election which has actually taken place in Jesus Christ. [6] He also regards it as a serious mistake on the part of the Reformers that in their teaching on predestination they have made the election of individuals their first and ultimately exclusive concern whereas in his view the original and primary object of God’s election of grace is Jesus Christ. The people who, called by Jesus Christ, believe in Him, in other words, His Church which is His body, are elected in Him and through Him. Finally, there are also individuals who through the witness of the church to Jesus Christ are brought to faith in Him. Hence with Barth the order of predestination is an entirely different one. The election of individuals is for him only the last problem of the doctrine of predestination, namely the telos of the election of the community of God (Israel and the Church), whereas the election of Jesus Christ is its first problem. [7]

What is Barth’s argument in favour of this order of predestination? How does he justify his proposition that Jesus Christ is the basis of the doctrine of election? [8] Above all, where does he find the eternal decree of God which for him is the beginning of all the ways and works of God ad extra? His starting point is once more the Word of God, and the Word of God as addressed to man is Jesus Christ. In Jesus Christ, above all in His divine-human nature, the meaning of God’s election is revealed. For that which has taken place at the very centre of the divine self-revelation, that is, in Jesus Christ, in His person and work, is, seen in the light of His resurrection, God’s election. As the eternal Son of God, who became man in the man Jesus of Nazareth, suffered and died on the Cross that sinful man may forever have fellowship with God, Jesus Christ is Himself the eternal decree or rather the realisation of that resolve of God within Himself in His eternity before the creation of the world which is termed the eternal decree of God. It is only in Jesus Christ and through Him that God could carry out and has carried out His eternal plan with man, His eternal election of Himself to fellowship with man and of man to fellowship with Himself, and it is for this reason that Jesus Christ is the original and primary object of God’s election, God’s first and eternal thought and will in His election. [9]

The main arguments advanced in support of this proposition can be summarised as follows: [10] (1) from eternity God not only willed to co-exist with man but in His humility, and because He is merciful, also willed to become Himself man in the man Jesus of Nazareth; (2) it is only by becoming Himself man and thus being the God who is not only for us but in Jesus Christ is with us that God could give concrete reality and effectiveness to His promise ‘I will be your God’ and to His command ‘You shall be my people’, (3) only Jesus Christ as the true man, who was without sin and rendered perfect obedience, was and is God’s faithful partner in God’s covenant of grace with man, the fulfilment of which is the eternal purpose of creation; (4) only in Jesus Christ, in His person and work, God’s covenant of grace with man, broken by the sin of man, could be and is restored for the eternal benefit of all men; 95) only Jesus Christ, His person and His work of reconciliation, could be and is God’s perfect answer to human sin, safeguarding God’s faithfulness both to Himself and to man. Barth contends that these thoughts and intentions had been with God from eternity, that from the very beginning they had constituted an integral part of God’s eternal plan with man. [11] This shows that with him Jesus Christ is neither an afterthought of God, nor some sort of emergency solution in the face of man’s actual sinfulness, nor merely God’s retort to human sin. On the contrary, he claims that God willed and created the world primarily for the sake of Jesus Christ, in whose person and work God’s positive will in His relationship with man, namely His fellowship with man as God’s faithful covenant partner, would find and has found its perfect fulfilment, whereas all other men, because of sin, could have and actually have fellowship with God only in Jesus Christ and through Him. [12]

To Brunner’s anthropocentric-historical objection that it is inconceivable that all men, ‘even those who live thousands of years before Jesus’, should have their being in the history of Jesus, that the history of human existence should derive from that of the man Jesus, Barth gives the theocentric-theological answer, with God’s eternal decree in mind, that in the history of Jesus we have to do with the reality which underlies and precedes all other reality as the first and eternal Word of God. [13] Again, contrary to the traditional teaching of the Christian church, Barth claims, as indicated in the afore-mentioned arguments and expanded in his doctrine of reconciliation (CD IV/1, pp. 46 ff.), that the thought of sinful man’s reconciliation with God in Jesus Christ and of God’s fellowship with sinful man, thereby made possible for Him and for man, was in the mind of God before the world and man were created and thus even before sin became a reality. The unparalleled precedence thereby given to the idea reconciliation over creation and sin has to be seen in the light of Barth’s teaching on creation, the Nihil and reconciliation before its true meaning can be grasped.

Jesus Christ is both the Electing God and the elected man. [14] He is the Electing God as the eternal Son of God who in obedience to God’s eternal decree before time, namely in obedience to the Word spoken to Him by His father within the innertrinitarian life of God and accepted by Him as the Son in the mutual love of the Holy Spirit which unites Him with His Father, elected Himself to become the Son of Man in the man Jesus of Nazareth and to take upon Himself by His passion and death on the Cross the rejection which should have been the lot of sinful man. He is the electing God also because those who are represented by Him are elected in Him and through Him.

At the same time He is the elected man in that as the man Jesus of Nazareth He lives the perfect life of the true man which God has willed for man as His covenant partner, in everything depending upon the grace of His Heavenly Father and rendering to Him that perfect obedience which is supremely expressed in Jesus’ prayer at Gethsemane (Mark 14:36). Because He, and He only, is this man, He is not only the first of the elect, let alone one of the elect, but the Elect and as such is exalted to eternal union with His Father in Heaven, whereas all other men are elected in Him and through Him since it is He, and He alone, who enables them to stand before God as those who, though they are still sinners, yet are justified by faith in Him, and as such are represented by Him.

Barth too teaches a double predestination which however is quite different from the one taught by the Reformers. He finds it in the twofold aspect which the election of Jesus Christ presents. In Jesus Christ, as revealed in His person and work, God elected Himself for rejection, damnation and death, but sinful man for election, blessedness and eternal life. In other words, the predestination that has taken place in Jesus Christ has the twofold content that God willed to lose in order that man may gain. [15] In the freedom of His grace God elected in Jesus Christ the lost man, the sinner, who is pardoned because God willed to suffer and die in his place. Hence in this double predestination God’s Yes and God’s No is expressed. But whereas his Yes is intended for man, whom according to His eternal plan with man He has graciously elected for fellowship with Himself in spite of man’s sinfulness, He has chosen the No, the rejection, for Himself. There is, Barth teaches, [16] but One who is rejected by God and that is Jesus Christ who in His twofold capacity as the Son of God and as the Son of Man submitted to this rejection of His own free will and in obedience to God’s eternal decree by sacrificing Himself on the cross the salvation of all men. Thus Jesus Christ is both the Elect of God and the only rejected.

Logically, this latter position would entail the doctrine of the apokotastasis, the teaching of universal salvation. However, believing in a higher divine logic which surpasses the logic of finite human mind, Barth maintains in view of the freedom of the divine grace and on scriptural grounds that the question of whether or not ultimately all men will be saved must remain an open one. [17] If this is true, one might wonder why in that case he feels justified to speak of Jesus Christ as the only rejected, and one might ask whether we have here another example of his peculiar method first to make an unqualified statement and to qualify it afterwards. However, as his teaching on ‘The Determination of the Rejected’ [18] and on ‘The Perdition of Man’ [19] shows, the meaning of the proposition of Jesus Christ as the only rejected is the limited one that Jesus Christ is the only one who from eternity was intended to suffer the penalty of death, whereas by his precarious sacrificial death the way to eternal salvation would be, and actually has been, open to all men; in other words, the sins of the latter, because of the forgiveness of sin offered in Jesus Christ, no longer necessarily and unavoidably result in rejection. Thus, from eternity, God’s will in Jesus Christ is directed toward the salvation of all men ‘in intention’; [20] rejection cannot again become the portion of those who, having heard the call of Jesus Christ, believe in Him and thus, through faith in Him, become the children of God.

Of those who do not believe in Him no more can be said in Barth’s view than that they too are determined to hear the gospel of Jesus Christ and with it the promise of their election and thereby to come to faith in Him, which is the goal of man’s election in Jesus Christ. [21] The Christian community can only testify to this promise, and this is the service to which it is constantly called in respect of every human being. [22] For all men are elected in Jesus Christ, and the difference between the elect and other men merely consists in the fact that the former, by the grace of God and in the power of the Holy Spirit, actually live the life of the elect; in other words, their life as the elect is only the fulfilment of their election. [23] As to Barth’s actualistic teaching on the divine predestination as a living act, an event, an eternal occurrence, and his uncompromising rejection of any idea of synergism in the doctrine of God’s election of grace see CD II/2 pp 180ff.

[1] CD II/2 p3.

[2] Ibid., pp, 3, 7, 10, 12 ff., 49 ff.

[3] Ibid., pp. 45 ff.

[4] CD II/2, p. 94.

[5] Ibid., p. 101.

[6] Ibid., pp. 15 ff., 25 ff., 59 ff., 101 ff., 127 ff., 146 ff.

[7] Ibid., pp. 94 ff., 195 ff., 306 ff.

[8] Ibid., p. 59.

[9] CD II/2, pp. 94 ff.

[10] These arguments are to be found partly in his doctrine of God’s election of grace (CD II/2 pp. 3 ff., 76 ff., 94 ff.) and partly in other parts of his Church Dogmatics (e.g. CD IV/1, pp. 16 ff., 22 ff., 36 ff., 46 ff.; IV/2, pp. 32 ff., 42).

[11] It is at this point that many questions could be raised and some of the implied premises might be queried; lack of space however forbids such a discussion.

[12] CD IV/1, pp. 46 ff., IV/2, p. 33.

[13] CD IV/1, p. 53.

[14] CD II/2, pp. 95 ff., 116 ff.

[15] Ibid., pp. 161 ff.

[16] Ibid., pp. 122 ff., 161 ff., 340 ff., 352 ff.

[17] CD II/2. pp 417 ff., IV/3, p. 478.

[18] CD II/2. pp. 449 ff.

[19] CD IV/3, pp. 461 ff.

[20] CD II/2, pp. 422 f.

[21] Ibid., pp. 475., 506.

[22] Ibid., p. 320.

[23] Ibid., pp. 126 ff., 180 ff., 340 ff.

One thought on “Herbert Hirschwald – aka Hartwell (1894-1989) on Karl Barth’s doctrine of God’s Election of Grace.

  1. “When you become familiar with them, reading the Dogmatics often becomes an occasion for immense spiritual exhilaration. You will find yourself racing through page after page to get to the end of the section, which always culminates with a profound and wonderful Christological affirmation. I often found myself lifted up in worship while reading Barth’s exposition of the God who says ‘Yes’ to us in Jesus Christ! This is what the Dogmatics is, by the way, – a sustained exposition of the Triune God – i.e. the God who reveals Himself in Jesus Christ to be the Father who freely loves us, and has so from all eternity. This same God is the God who realises in time and history His original purpose for us by reconciling us to Himself in Jesus Christ, who is the Eternal Son, the One who humbled himself to exalt us, who came to be with us so that we could be with Him; and again, this God is the God who comes to dwell in us through the outpouring of His Holy Spirit – the power and presence of His love – and so is the God who in freely loving us frees us to love! The Christian life is therefore ‘Eucharistia’ (thanksgiving and gratitude) in response to ‘Charis’ (grace); it is saying yes to the God who has said Yes to us; it is loving the God who loves us. Wonderful, isn’t it?”

    What my lecturer/teacher David McGregor, said to me back in August 2002, when I first started seriously engaging with Karl Barth’s Dogmatics.

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