John Webster † “The doctrine of election is….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”.


John Webster († 1955-2016) said in his masterful overview of the Professor from Basel – Barth, Second Edition (London: Continuum, 2004) pp. 88-93, that “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 to 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”.

In describing Karl Barth’s doctrine of election Webster went on to say that “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”.

In II/2 para 33 of the Church Dogmatics Karl Barth answered his critics:

We ask then: When it is a question of the understanding and exposition of what the Bible calls predestination or election, why and on what authority are we suddenly to formulate a statement which leaves out all mention of Jesus Christ? How is it that at this point there suddenly arises the possibility of looking elsewhere? How do we arrive at the position where we are able to do this, when we know that we cannot do it at any other point without parting company with the older theologians? Is it that when we come to pre-temporal eternity, the sphere of predestination, that which was in the beginning with God, we are suddenly to think of these apart from Jesus Christ—something which quite rightly we are not allowed to do when we deal with supra-temporal and post-temporal eternity, with what is and will be? Is Jesus Christ really the One who was, and is, and is to come, or is He not? And if He is, what constraint or authority is there that we should not think through to the ultimate meaning of the “He was,” not go back to the real beginning of all things in God, i.e., not think of the divine foreordination, the divine election of grace, as something which takes place in Him and through Him? How is it that the concept of eternal election can be referred to some other reality and not Jesus Christ, who as our salvation and the Head of the Church and our hope must also be the electing God and elected man in one and the same person? As presented to us in the Bible, what can the election be at all, and what can it mean, if it is divorced from the name and person to which the whole content of the Bible relates as to the exhaustive self-revelation of God, here with the forward look of expectation and there with the backward look of recollection? Only in some other context than that of Holy Scripture can the concept of election, of foreordination, of the eternal divine decree, refer elsewhere, to the twofold mystery of an unknown God and unknown man. We cannot understand the hermeneutical decision which the older theologians made in relation to this question. But in arriving at a different decision we do not believe that we are doing anything out of the ordinary, but something obvious and straightforward. We believe, in fact, that we are doing the only possible thing in accordance with the method with which those theologians were conversant in other matters. And for this reason we do not accept the criticism that at this point we have been betrayed into an innovation which is purely capricious, wanting to know what by its very nature cannot be known. We know that Jesus Christ is the electing God and elected man from the same source which fed the older theology, and would have fed it at this point too, but obviously could not do so because the theologians themselves arbitrarily turned aside from it. The purpose of our thesis is to make good the arbitrary act of our predecessors. And if it is calculated to shed light upon a doctrine where obscurity has hitherto prevailed, the light is not one which we ourselves have arbitrarily kindled, but the same light as is given everywhere else. We have no cause to put that light under a bushel merely at this point“.

In one of his characteristic excursi in smaller print Barth then went on to bolster his argument for refuting the classical view:

In this thesis of ours we are taking up again the intention which was unequivocally disclosed but not developed by John Knox and his fellow-workers in the Conf. Scotica of 1560, Arts. 7–8.

(Scottish Confession of Faith ) .

In this confession Christology and predestination were regarded as in some sort parallel, and for that reason were treated together. On the one hand, there is the miraculous union of Godhead and manhood in Jesus Christ, and, on the other, our redemption; and both these have their origin and basis in the one eternal and unalterable decree of God. Thus in Art. 7 the answer to the question Cur Deus homo? is a concise and simple reference to this decree. And Art. 8 shows to what extent the election of Jesus Christ dominates this reference, for under the heading “Of the Election” the remaining content of the Calvinistic doctrine of predestination, even to the election or rejection of individuals, is introduced only in the form of a citation of Eph. 1:4. And in the place of a longer exposition there is a detailed development and explanation of the fact that to be our Head, our Brother and our Shepherd, to be the Messiah and Saviour, to bear the punishment which we had merited and to destroy death on our behalf, Jesus Christ had to become both very God and very man. According to the intention of this confession, what should have been said of our election or rejection as the second element in this eternal and unalterable decree has obviously been said already in the statement concerning the nature of Jesus Christ and His being as very God and very man as determined by that eternal and unalterable decree. It is surely no accident that in Arts. 2 and 3, instead of working out in the usual way an independent doctrine of sin, this same confession introduces the problem of the fall only as a postscript to the doctrine of the original foreordination of man, the problem of original sin only as a preface to the doctrine of faith in Jesus Christ as effected by the Holy Ghost. Obviously it is only in that context and not in and for itself that John Knox would have the fact of sin understood. That man is against God is important and must be taken seriously. But what is far more important and must be taken far more seriously is that in Jesus Christ God is for man. And it is only in the light of the second fact that the importance and seriousness of the first can be seen. It can hardly be denied that in the Conf. Scotica the specific conception of sin is intimately connected with the peculiar christological conception of predestination.

The christological meaning and basis of the doctrine of election have been brought out afresh in our own time, and with an impressive treatment of Jesus Christ as the original and decisive object of the divine election and rejection. This service has been rendered by Pierre Maury in the fine lecture which he gave on “Election et Foi” (Election and Faith) at the Congrès international de théologie calviniste (International Congress on Calvinistic Theology) in Geneva, 1936 (published in Foi et Vie, April–May 1936, and in German under the title Erwählung und Glaube (Election and Faith) in Theol. Studien, Heft 8, 1940). That Congress dealt exclusively with the problem of predestination, and its records will easily show how instructive was Maury’s contribution, and how it stood out from the other papers, which were interesting historically but in content moved entirely within the circle of the traditional formulations, and were almost hopelessly embarrassed by their difficulties.

Apart from these two voices, the one from the period of the Reformation and the other from our own, we can appeal in support of our thesis only (1) to the (in their own context highly significant) passages quoted in the first section from Athanasius and Augustine, together with occasional sentences from Coccejus; (2) to the inevitability of such a solution in the light of the Supralapsarian controversy; and (3) to the general Reformation assertion that Christ is the speculum electionis (mirror of election), an assertion which obviously stands in need of more profound and comprehensive treatment. Historically there are to hand all kinds of important materials which should encourage and even necessitate an adoption of this thesis, but it cannot be denied that in formulating it as we have done we have exposed ourselves to the risk of a certain isolation. And we may repeat that it is most singular that this should be the case, and that the obvious should have to be stated and defended in the apparent form of an innovation“.    

Barth, K., Bromiley, G. W., & Torrance, T. F. (2004). Church dogmatics: The doctrine of God, Part 2 (Vol. 2, pp. 153–155). London; New York: T&T Clark.

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