Mark Lindsay – Christological Election

Mark Lindsay

In his 2001 work Covenanted Solidarity (Peter Lang, 2001) Mark Lindsay[1] explored the controversial issue of whether and how the Swiss theologian Karl Barth responded to the anti-Semitic policies of Nazi Germany. Drawing on and arguing against various debates within the fields of Barthian, Holocaust and Kirchenkampf literature, he argued that not only were Barth’s political actions a thoroughgoing opposition to both the Nazi regime and its inherent anti-Semitism, but that this stance was firmly based on Barth’s dogmatic theology, in particular, the Church Dogmatics. On the basis of his interpretation of Barth’s theology and its particular political expressions (such as the 1934 Barmen Declaration) , Mark rejected the commonly held assumptions that Barth was indifferent to the Jewish plight and suggested that his resistance was at least as comprehensive as Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s.

In my book Election, Barth and the French Connection: How Pierre Maury gave a ‘Decisive Impetus’ to Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Election, Mark wrote a brilliant essay “Pierre Maury, Karl Barth and the Evolution of Election”, which contributed so much to the substance of that work, in which he outlined the major aspects of Barth’s articulation of election, describing the political-rhetorical context in which Barth’s reflections on this subject were made. Having written in some detail on Barth’s theology in the light of the Holocaust, he also showed how the particularities of Barth’s doctrine of election stand in self-conscious resistance to the National Socialist hatred of God’s ancient people.

In his chapter on Karl Barth’s anti-Nazi Christology Mark focuses on the doctrine of Christological election as a repudiation of anti-Semitism:

“..Barth’s doctrine of election…, written between the autumn of 1939 and the winter of 1941 to 42, …deals much more fully with the question of Israel than the previous volumes. Furthermore, Barth’s treatment of this question, within the context of election, is approached Christologically. In turning now to this theme, we will see how Barth’s Christology is the very reason for the ultimately sympathetic understanding of Israel at which he arrives.

In the first part of his Doctrine of God, Barth explains that the freedom of God is His freedom to be with those who are not God. This does not imply an obligation of relation on God’s part. On the contrary, even in relationship, “God stands at an infinite distance from everything else..” He “confronts all that is in supreme and utter independence…’ (CD II/1, 311). He would still be God without any relationship with those that are not God. Thus, if He does not initiate such a relation, it is purely a function of His grace, which in turn entails a relation “between two utterly unequal partners..” (CD II/1, 312). In other words, grace means “a turning, not in equality, but in condescension. The fact that God is gracious means that he condescends” – that is, initiates a relationship with humankind – “because He alone is truly transcendent, and stands on an equality with nothing outside Himself” (CD II/1, 354). It is on the basis of this understanding of God that Barth draws us on to the concept of election which is fundamentally, the doctrine of God’s method of encountering humankind in relationship.

The first question with which we are confronted is, who is the object of election? In CD III/1, Barth posits the view that the aim of creation is the history of the covenant of grace between God and humanity. The divine decision for a covenantal relationship precedes creation as its presupposition and so, therefore, creation as such means election and not rejection (CD III/1, 330-334). We must not, however, leap to the conclusion that a generalised humanity is self-evidently the elect of God. Barth, indeed, refutes the notion that God’s covenant partner is an abstract conception of ‘man’ or ‘humanity’, “nor indeed a large or small total of individual men” (CD II/2, 8). Rather the particular partner “over against God which cannot be thought away…., which is so adjoined to the reality of God that we cannot and should not see the word ‘God’ without at once thinking of it”, is the man Jesus of Nazareth “and the people represented in Him” (CD II/2, 8).[2] That Israel and the church are the people represented in the primary election of Jesus is an idea to which we shall return later, and in which we shall see clearly a theological defence of both Israel and present-day Jews. We cannot proceed to that point, however, until we have delved into the essentially prior (and primal) election of Jesus, on which all the rest hangs.

Barth’s first move is to submit that the idea of election denotes “God in his movement towards man…” which is, as such, a movement of grace (CD II/2, 7, 9). This movement is personalised in its identity with Jesus Christ, the Jewish man of Nazareth. It is at this point that Barth diverges from earlier theological paradigms, for the God-man exists as both the subjective and objective ground of our election. In other words, Jesus is at once the electing God and the elected man. With this, we are referred back to the Chalcedonian formula of true God and true man but, as we have seen, the anhypostatic pole of Barth’s Christology compels him once again to prioritise the vere Deus.

Jesus Christ is the electing God. We must begin with this assertion because by its content it has the character and dignity of a basic principle, and because the other assertion, that Jesus Christ is elected man, can be understood only in the light of it (CD II/2 103).[3]

By exegeting John 1: 1-2 Barth shows that there can be no separation between the electing God and the Word who is with Him in the beginning, and who is identifiable as Jesus Christ. How, Barth asks, “are we to distinguish God’s electing from his work..? Are we not forced to say that the electing consists in this word and decree in the beginning; and, conversely; that this Word”… Whose name is Jesus Christ- “in the beginning (is) God’s electing.?” (CD II/2. 95-99, 100). Barth’s logic is simple. He contends that the question of election enjoys precedence over all other tenets of faith that relate to the work of God, because “in the act of love determines His whole being God elects.” It is the work which is intrinsic to the divine being. Or, as Barth puts it, God’s electing of Himself with humankind and humankind for Himself “is not one moment with others in the prophetic and apostolic testimony.” Rather because it is enclosed “within the testimony of God to Himself, it is the moment which is the substance and basis of all other moments in that testimony” (CD II/2, 76, 91).[4] This being the case, God is, in pre-temporal eternity, an electing God. But because the Word of God is with God in this pre-temporal beginning, and the concept of perichoresis insists that the three persons of the Godhead are all mutual subjects in all the works of God, then the Word, who is Jesus Christ, is as such the electing God.

This having been established, Barth now proceeds to add that Christ is also, and on the basis of the above, the elected man. While the eternal decree of God has the salvation of all humanity in its scope, it only moves to this universal position from a prior particularity that is located in the man Jesus of Nazareth. He stands as not merely one of the elect, but as the elect of God, with all others having their subsequent election only ‘in Him’ (CD II/2, 116).

In itself… The particular leads us to the general, which it includes within itself. For finally, of course, the election has to do with the whole of humanity… although materially it has to do first and exclusively with the one man, and then with the specific members of the people which belong to Him… (Thus) the doctrine of election is rightly grounded when in respect of the elected man as well is the electing God it does not deal with a generality or abstraction in God or man, but with the particularity and concretion of the true God and true man. It is rightly grounded when only from that starting-point it goes on to perceive..whatever there is of consequence about God or man in general; from that starting-point, and not vice versa CD II/2, 51).

If, therefore, we are to understand our election, we must look solely to Jesus Christ, who is “the particularity and concretion of the true God and true man” and who, for that reason, is the elect man (CD II/2 58-9).

It now becomes clear how and to what extent Barth differs from theological tradition – perhaps, most of all, his own Reformed tradition – in his explanation of this doctrine. His determination to posit Christ as both the subjective and objective grounds of election forces him to reject the hermeneutical principle of his predecessors that replaced Jesus with the decretum absolutum as the content and presupposition of predestination. For Barth, the idea of an original divine decree of predestination which is outside of, beyond, and prior to Christ, and of which he finds especially strong evidence in Calvin, leads to uncertainty and fear on the one hand, and an emptying of the meaning of the doctrine on the other. If election is located in the “will and decision of God which are hidden somewhere in the heights or depths behind Jesus Christ and behind God’s revelation”, we are deprived of all knowledge of election and all certainty about our own election in Christ.[5]……”

[1] Mark is an historical theologian, with over 20 years of experience teaching, researching, and providing senior academic leadership in Australian and overseas universities. His specific areas of interest are Barthian and post-Holocaust theologies, Patristic and modern European Church History, and Anglican Studies. He is a priest in the Anglican Diocese of Melbourne. He serves as Deputy Dean and the Joan F.W. Munro Professor of Historical Theology at Trinity College Theological School, Melbourne. He has taught at universities in Melbourne, Perth and Cambridge, and worked for seven years as the University of Divinity’s Director of Research. Mark is widely published, with an international reputation for his work on the theologies of Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. His published works include Covenanted Solidarity: The Theological Basis of Karl Barth’s Opposition to Nazi Antisemitism and the Holocaust (Peter Lang, 2001); Barth, Israel and Jesus (Ashgate, 2007); and Reading Auschwitz with Barth: The Holocaust as Problem and Promise for Barthian Theology (Wipf & Stock, 2014). His work on the doctrine of election is soon to be published by IVP Academic. He is currently President of the Australian and New Zealand Association of Theological Schools and is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society.

[2] Barth’s position was based almost entirely on Pierre Maury’s paper ‘Election and Faith’, which was presented at the 1936 ‘Congrès Internationale de Théologie Calviniste’ in Geneva, and at which Barth had been a delegate. See P. Maury Erwahlung und Glaube, (Theologische Studien 8: Zurich: EVZ, 1940) (See also Election Barth and the French Connection: How Pierre Maury gave a ‘Decisive Impetus to Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Election (Pickwick: Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2019, 41-59) ). Maury’s thesis, that outside of Jesus Christ we can know nothing of either the electing God or of His elect, and the subsequent corollary of a cross-centred understanding of election and reprobation,….., all find their clear echoes in Barth’s doctrine.

[3] See also “ the Son, too, is an active Subject of the aeterna Dei praedestinatio as Son of man, that he is Himself the electing God and that only in this way.. Is He the Elect (man)..” (CD II/2, 107).

[4] See also C. Gunton, ‘Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Election as part of his doctrine of God’, Journal of theological Studies, vol. 25, No 2, (1974), pp. 381-392

[5] For examples of this decretum absolutum, Barth cites Calvin, Institutes, III.22.7; De aeterna Dei praedestinatione., 8.292; the Synod of Dort in its condemnation of the Remonstrants. Moreover, he sees it is one of the common features binding the otherwise polarised positions of Supralapsarianism and Infralapsarianism. See also K. Sonderegger, That Jesus Christ was Born a Jew; Karl Barth’s ‘Doctrine of Israel’, (Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania University Press, 1992), pp.48-50. That Barth rejects this means that he also rejects the concept of limited atonement. See Barth CD IV/1, p.58.

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