Barth on election by John Webster

The election of God

 John Webster † Barth, Second Edition (London: Continuum, 2004) pp. 88-93.


The doctrine of election forms the centrepiece of the doctrine of God; indeed, it is one of the most crucial chapters in the Church Dogmatics as a whole, summing up much of what Barth has had to say so far and pointing forward the essential features of the doctrines of creation and reconciliation. It is arguably the classic instance in the Church Dogmatics of Barth working at his conviction that the church’s talk of Jesus Christ is to furnish the ground and content of all theological doctrine. Moreover, in writing this section of the Church Dogmatics Barth felt largely alone, lacking in intellectual precedence and at odds even with the Reformed tradition in which the doctrine of election had played such a large role in explicating the soteriological and anthropological consequences of the doctrine of divine sovereignty.

These factors may offer some explanation of why Barth is more than usually explicit in laying out the conditions of success for an account of divine election (a parallel passage can be found in the treatment of Christian baptism right at the end of the Church Dogmatics, where Barth finds himself similarly in dispute with the mainstream Reformed tradition and so particularly vigorous in canvassing the criteria by which he wishes to be judged). [1] Here in II/2, the criteria are a mixture of formal and material conditions. Formally the doctrine of election is not to be dominated by church tradition, by considerations of the doctrine’s practical utility, or by experience – all of which conspire to undermine the reference of the doctrine to the Word of God. Barth is painfully aware that the doctrine of election is both vital and vulnerable: vital, because it forms the intersection point of theology, soteriology, anthropology and much else; vulnerable, because it appears to be especially receptive to external influences which undermine or compromise its strictly biblical character. And so here more than anywhere Barth insists on ‘the basic rule of all Church Dogmatics’, namely that

no single item of Christian doctrine is legitimately grounded, or rightly developed and expounded, unless it can of itself be understood and explained as part of the responsibility laid upon the hearing and teaching Church towards the self-revelation of God attested in Holy Scripture. Thus the doctrine of election cannot be legitimately understood or represented except in the form of an exposition of what God himself has said and still says concerning Himself. (II/2, p. 35)

Behind this formal move, however, lies a material principle: the particularity of God, which is at all costs to be respected in the construction of the doctrine of election. There is a danger, Barth notes, that we may start from a ‘concept of God as omnipotent Will, governing and irresistibly directing each and every creature according to his own law’ (II/2, p. 44). What is being objected to here is not so much the underlying notion of divine sovereignty, but the indeterminateness of such a concept of deity. The error which Barth feels it so necessary to censure is that of ‘supposing that God is irresistibly efficacious in abstracto, naked freedom and sovereignty’ (ibid). And within the error lies that against which the entire Church Dogmatics is directed: ‘God in general’ (II/2, p. 49), uncorrected and undisciplined by the name of Jesus, and therefore an open field for the exercise of the speculative arts. But, Barth protests, for Christian theology things must not be so:

When Holy Scripture speaks of God it concentrates our attention and thoughts upon one single point and what is to be known at that point. And what is to be known there is quite simple…(God) does the general for the sake of the particular. Or to put it another way, He does the general through the particular, and in and with it. That is God according to his self-revelation. (II/2, pp. 52f.)

More closely, this means that in matters concerning predestination, theology’s attention is to be directed not to abstract questions of choice, causality, freedom and the like – as if these questions could be asked and answered without appeal to any specifically Christian content – but to ‘the name of Jesus’ (II/2, p. 53). This name, and the sequence of salvation history at whose centre it lies, is to be the lodestone of any discussion of election. Such a discussion therefore takes its form from a repetition of that saving drama rather than the refinement of it a priori concepts:

in this name we may now confirm the divine decision as an event in human history and therefore as the substance of all the preceding history of Israel and the hope of all the succeeding history of the Church. What happened was this, that under this name God himself became man, that he became this particular man, and as such the Representative of the whole people that hastens toward this Man and derives from him…According to Scripture the One who bears this name is the One who in His own ‘I’ introduces the concept of sovereignty and every perfection. When the bearer of this name becomes the object of our attention and thoughts, when they are directed to Jesus Christ, then we see God, and our thoughts are fixed on Him. (II/2, pp. 53f.)

As it proceeds with a descriptive expansion of the name of Jesus, Barth’s doctrine of election insists from the beginning that the theme of election is not simply God but also humanity because election is governed by the name (that is, the lived identity) of Jesus ‘in matter and in substance’, then it cannot be expanded as if it’s effective centre were simply the divine will or rule, without any real consideration of the human realities to which that will and rule direct themselves. The theme of election’s covenant, ‘the primal history which is played out between God and this one man (Jesus) and His people’ (II/2, p. 8). Certainly, Barth agrees, the doctrine of election serves to underline that the grace with which God establishes the covenant is free (not rendered ineffective by creaturely resistance), mysterious (inscrutable under any conditions other than itself), and righteous (not subject to creaturely norms of judgement). But election – precisely in its freedom, mystery and righteousness, not despite them – is ‘the sum of the Gospel’ (II/2, p. 24). If Barth can say this, it is because in the earlier sections of his doctrine of God he has already devoted much labour to explaining that, as the one whose freedom is freedom to love, God is ‘God for us’ (II/2, p. 25). Divine election is no exception, but rather the confirmation of the sheer depth of God’s love: ‘That God wills neither to be without the world nor against it can never be stated more clearly than when we speak of His election’ (II/2, p. 26). Election is no mere formal assertion of divine absoluteness; still less is it a means of inserting a hidden divine will behind the merciful acts of God. It is simply an indication that in God for us we really have to do with the God for us, and therefore with the entirely effective mercy of God whose love is undefeated.

The theme of election is thus at one and the same time singular and two-fold. It is singular in that talk of divine election is focused on the irreplaceable, non-symbolic reality of Jesus Christ. It is two-fold because Jesus Christ is both ‘the electing and elected’, the God-man to whom are ascribed to both ‘the active determination of election’ and ‘the passive determination of election’ (II/2 p. 103). In this striking move, Barth appeals to the doctrine of Christ’s two natures in order to effect a radical reshaping of the notion of ‘double predestination’. In Barth’s hands, the term comes to refer, not the decision of God in which the human race is divided into the elect and the reprobate, but to God’s self-election and God’s election of humanity, both actual in Jesus Christ. ‘Primarily,’ he proposes, ‘God elected or predestinated Himself’ (II/2, p. 162); and, in fulfilment of the divine self-election, ‘God elected man, this man’ (ibid). We take each side in turn.

First, in Jesus Christ we are to discern election as divine self-election. Barth, we have already noted, is insistent that we exclude any sense of arbitrary divine omnipotence or pure indeterminacy from an account of the eternal will of God, since what matters is the specificity of that will. God elects to be this God, God in this man, God known in and as Jesus Christ. Put simply: ‘In the beginning with God was this One, Jesus Christ. And that is predestination’ (II/2, p. 145). In considering divine self-election, we are reflecting on the capacity which is actual in the particular ways and works of God; formal characteristics such as liberty of foreordination can only be understood in connection with patient tracing of these particular works and ways. Thus God’s self-election is his determination of himself to be gracious; and that ‘grace’ is not merely one modulation of an absolute will which could be directed in other ways, for other ends. In divine self-election we do not face unfocused autonomy but a determination for identity.

Second, in Jesus Christ we are to discern election as the election of humanity. Once again, Barth maximises the Christological element. The dominance of the notion of the divine decree in parts of the earlier Reformed tradition sometimes gave the impression that the doctrine of election could be expounded largely without reference to the incarnation – as if election concerned a relation between God and humanity to which Jesus Christ was largely incidental, or as if the line from the will of God to the elect did not traverse the history of Jesus. Barth simply refuses to follow that tradition, insisting that whatever anthropological entailments the doctrine of election may have, they are to be christologically determined. This entails not only that the agent of election is none other than Jesus Christ himself (not some ‘unknown God’ (II/2, p. 147)) and that the means of election is Christ’s sharing of our humanity in the incarnation. It also involves an affirmation that election is to that form of human life which Jesus Christ himself establishes. Election is election to participate in the covenant which is secured in Jesus Christ, in which humanity is ‘enriched and saved and glorified in the living fellowship of that covenant’ (II/2, p. 168).

The result of these Christological corrections is thus an account of electing God and elect humanity in which election is not fate but form. Election and ethics are thus inseparable, since humanity is elect not simply to a state but a way of life.  Election is purposive determination, determination to blessedness, gratitude and service as witness. It is for this reason that Barth moves from his discussion of election to a lengthy consideration of the moral aspects of the doctrine of God in the final chapter of volume II/2. …….

As Barth lectured on the doctrine of God in the late 1930s and early 1940s – towards the end of election cycle, with Allied warplanes roaring ‘unceremoniously over our heads’ [2] – and turned his texts into the pages of Church Dogmatics II, he found himself drawing together and extending lines of thought which had been present to him since the previous great European conflict. 20 years previously, he had written with all the astonishment of one who was stumbling into a new world of words and thoughts of almost unimaginable persuasiveness; now he could write with more composure, though still with extraordinary intellectual and spiritual vitality, and with a range perceptiveness and authority which are classical in stature, most of all in the handling of predestination. Von Balthasar’s judgement that Barth’s treatment of election is ‘the most magnificent, unified and well-grounded section’ of the Church Dogmatics, ‘the heartbeat of his whole theology’, [3] was reached before Barth had begun to publish on the doctrine of reconciliation; but he is not wide of the mark. If the doctrine of election was a topic which drew from Barth some of his very best writing, it was because in digging deep into its history and dogmatic structure, he was able to articulate with greater assurance his most basic conception of Christianity. Near to the heart of that conception lay what Von Balthasar calls the ‘binary reciprocity’ of God and humanity which forms ‘the basic theme and leitmotif of the whole of salvation history’. [4] In revelation, election and command, God is not a blankly autonomous force but the one who is free to love; in knowing, being determined and obeying, the creature is free because loved by this God. This conception – utterly preoccupying, and offering an endless vista of spiritual and theological meditation – was now firmly established as the chief business of Barth’s life. Even though by the time he reached the end of Church Dogmatics II/2 Barth was in his mid-50s, he was only a third of the way through the undertaking which would engross him for another two decades before finally running into the sand…..

[1] See CD IV/4, pp. 169-76.

[2] E. Busch, Karl Barth, p. 301.

[3] H.U. von Balthasar, The Theology of Karl Barth, p. 174.

[4] Ibid, p. 177.

Steve Holmes of St Andrews University, Scotland, a colleague of the late much esteemed and loved John Webster wrote the short tribute below in 2016. John gave me his valuable time during a visit to Scotland in 2013. I read him some of my draft translations and he was later to say that “in providing an entry into Maury’s theology and its relation to Barth, the translations and interpretive essays of the first edition (of Election, Barth and the French Connection) prompted fresh thought about the content and place of the doctrine of election…” John’s irenic approach to Barth studies in his writings was a great help to me as, I am sure, it was for many others.

The Revd Professor John Bainbridge Webster, DD, FRSE 1955-2016

It is with enormous sadness that the School announces the sudden death on Wednesday 25th May of our friend and colleague John Webster, Professor of Divinity.

John was amongst the leading English-language theologians of his generation. Twelve monographs, four major edited volumes, and a host of shorter publications would have established his reputation on their own; when his extensive service to his discipline and the wider academy—founding the International Journal of Systematic Theology; serving on many editorial boards; membership of peer review colleges and learned societies—is added in, the true magnitude of his contribution can begin to be seen.

John’s academic career began at St John’s College, Durham (1982-86), then continued in Canada, at Wycliffe College, Toronto (1986-96). His eminence was recognised in 1996 when he was appointed Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity in the University of Oxford, a post he held until moving to the University of Aberdeen as Professor of Systematic Theology in 2003. He took his chair here in St Andrews in 2013.

We remember John as a warm and generous colleague, whose penetrating intellect was combined with a down-to-earth attitude, a ready sense of humour, and a deep Christian faith. Our thoughts and prayers are with his widow and family at this time.

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