THL Parker on Karl Barth – ‘the landscape gardener, brilliantly rearranging’ the doctrine of predestination


In a lucid and truly remarkable essay in A Dictionary of Christian Theology (1969, Ed. Alan Richardson, London, SCM, pp.264-272) on the somewhat vexed topic of Predestination, the late Thomas Henry Louis Parker, someone who has been described as the leading British Calvin scholar of the 20th century[1], gave a brilliant summary of a ‘new era’ through Karl Barth’s reworking of the classical doctrine.

“…The Augustinian doctrine held sway from the fifth century onwards. Theologians were either Augustinians, semi-Augustinians or anti Augustinians. They did not step outside the charmed circle. Nothing new of any significance was added, nothing significantly changed. But since the 1930s there has been a new era in the doctrine. Karl Barth has completely and brilliantly rearranged its conditions of treatment and the relative positions of the component parts. He has been like a landscape gardener at work. There is the same place; it has the same name; the same prominent natural features still confront us. But the whole view has been changed for readjustments, trees planted, undergrowth torn up, a stream diverted, new vistas, a new scene.

He first dealt with the doctrine intensively in a series of lectures in Hungary in 1936. But it is in the greatly expanded and carefully worked out form in Church Dogmatics, II: The Doctrine of God, that we shall now encounter it. The chapter, entitled ’The Election of God’, is divided into four sections: ‘The Problem of a Correct Doctrine of the Election of Grace’; ‘The Election of Jesus Christ’; ‘The Election of the Community’; The Election of the Individual’.

Note the first title: The Problem of a Correct Doctrine of the Election of Grace. It at once becomes obvious that Barth does not see his way clear before him and that he is unable to ally himself to the traditional doctrine as he would wish to do and as he is nearly always able to do elsewhere. He confesses that he wishes he could write this chapter too within the Augustinian-Calvinist tradition, but he cannot: ‘I would have preferred to follow Calvin’s doctrine of predestination much more closely, instead of departing from it so radically…..As I let the Bible itself speak to me on these matters, as I meditated upon what I seem to hear, I was driven irresistibly to reconstruction’ (p. x). Even more than this, he finds that he is forced into direct opposition to the tradition: ‘We cannot be too soon, or too radical, in the opposition which we must offer to the classical tradition’ (p. 13). This causes him much heart-searching. How could these great theologians, Augustine, Aquinas and Calvin, overlook something that, as soon as it is noticed, is so obviously true? In particular how could Augustine and the Reformers, who placed Christ at the heart of their theology, fail to do him justice at this point? ‘It is one of the great puzzles of history that the step which we are now taking… was not taken long ago’ (p. 147).

But characteristically, while even disagreeing, Barth listens carefully to what the traditional doctrine is saying and finds value in its underlying purpose. It was intended to protect and proclaim the freedom, the mystery and the righteousness of God – an intention that Barth makes his own.

He is forced to reject the traditional teaching for one reason only: he thinks the Scriptures point in a different direction. Here is an excellent example of Barth’s method. He is reverent and attentive to tradition, but obedient to Scripture alone. In a sense, all that he does in this doctrine is to treat it in the same way that he does all other parts of theology. Whereas the earlier theologians had in effect set up two sources of knowledge about God’s predestination, Scripture and Jesus Christ, Barth works with but one, Jesus Christ as he is witnessed to in Scripture. Theology must consistently start with Christ and not come to him later in its course. And, having started with him, it must continue with him to the end. If this procedure is adopted with predestination, the all-important step is taken at the outset. According to John 1:1 ff (a passage which once again plays a decisive part in Barth’s thinking), Jesus Christ is the Word who was with the Father and who became flesh; or, in the words of later theology, he is God-Man. But in predestination it is God who is the subject, the one who elects and chooses man. Therefore Jesus Christ is the electing God, it is he who chooses man. He is, however, also a man. But in predestination it is man who is the object of election. Therefore (see e.g. Luke 9:35; 1 Peter 2: 6) Jesus Christ is the elected man, the man who is chosen by God: ‘before all created reality, before all being and becoming in time, before time itself, in the pre-temporal eternity of God, the eternal divine decision as such has as its object and content the existence of this one created being, the man Jesus of Nazareth, and the work of this man in his life and death, his humiliation and exaltation, his obedience and merit’ (p. 116). Jesus Christ is therefore both the electing God and elected man.

But this means that at one stroke the traditional doctrine of the decretum absolutum, the hidden and unrevealed will of God, is destroyed. Who is the God who determines this decretum? If he is not the God revealed in Jesus Christ, he is an idol and therefore not God. For the eternal will of God is the eternal will of Christ, who is revealed and not hidden. Nor is it valid to posit another will of God (hidden from us) alongside the will of God revealed in Christ. To do so would be to transgress against the simplicity and unity of God. Therefore the decretum absolutum is, as Barth puts it, crowded out by Jesus Christ; no room is left. This is why Barth is so fierce against Calvin and accuses him that ‘in the last analysis he tore God and Jesus Christ asunder’ (p. 211).

Moreover, included in this insight is Barth’s criticism that theologians have always been in too much of a hurry to get to man as the object of predestination. Primarily, election is a self-election, a self-determination, on the part of God. God elects not to be alone but to have man as his covenant partner. ‘I will be your God: you shall be my people’ is a choice of the people only because it is first God’s choice to be the God of this people. This is a genuine choice; God chooses this mode of existence and rejects any other. It is gracious choice; God was not compelled to make it, but chose freely. And again, God’s self-election appears in the fact that graciously and freely he chose to become man and to bear man’s rebellion and guilt himself. ‘In the beginning, before time and space as we know them, before creation, before there was any reality distinct from God which could be the object of the love of God or the setting for his acts of freedom, God anticipated and determined within himself (in the power of his love and freedom, of his knowing and willing) that the goal and meaning of all his dealings with the as yet non-existent universe should be the fact that in his Son he would be gracious towards man, uniting himself with him. In the beginning it was the choice of the Father himself to establish this covenant with man by giving up his Son for him, that he himself might become man in the fulfilment of his grace. In the beginning it was the choice of the Son to be obedient to grace, and therefore to offer up himself and to become man in order that this covenant might be made a reality. In the beginning it was the resolve of the Holy Spirit that the unity of God, of Father and Son, should not be disturbed or rent by this covenant with man, but that it should be made the more glorious’ (p. 101).

Since Jesus Christ is the electing God, this finally means that, because Jesus Christ is God for us, God taking our side against the forces that enslave and destroy us, the electing God is for us. Thus the existence and death of Christ are the objective guarantees that we are elect.

Jesus Christ is at the same time elected man. This is a concept taken over from traditional Christology. But whereas it was said that as man he was one of the elect, Barth corrects this sharply and says that he is the elect. It is not as if he were merely one among others, or there are no other elect alongside him, far less apart from him. His election is unique, so that the election of all others is a partaking in his election. Ephesians 1:4 (‘he chose us in him before the foundation of the world’) is the other verse on which Barth lays great weight. We are not merely elected through Christ, as if his incarnation and death were the agency or instrument on account of which we are chosen. We are chosen in him; his election includes within itself the election of all others. We should note that, because of his emphasis on this verse, Barth makes no use of the Augustinian and Calvinist insistence on predestination into Christ.

The election of Jesus Christ is the type of our election, and this in three ways:

First, it is, as the traditional doctrine says, not of merit but of pure grace that he has chosen to be the Son of God. There was nothing that he himself as man could advance by way of merit that would cause the eternal Word to become flesh, taking and sanctifying the flesh of Adam that it should become holy and obedient. We also are chosen by grace and not on account of any merit that we might have.

Secondly, his election was to suffering and death. That the New Testament understands his suffering as foreordained is abundantly clear. ‘This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men’ (Acts 2:23); ‘the lamb that has been slain from the foundation of the world’ (Revelation 13:8). The converse is equally true, that his election was to suffering and death. ‘Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?’ (Luke 24:26). Here we meet the ‘shadow side’ of predestination. To speak of this election to suffering is to speak of rejection or reprobation. In the death of Christ the wrath of God against sin was actualised, so that he suffered the rejection of God. Yet it was not he but sinful man who had incurred God’s rejection. It is therefore sinful man who should bear the rejection and hear God’s ‘No’. Jesus Christ, the only begotten who was in the bosom of the father who satisfied all God’s demands upon him, should hear only God’s ‘Yes’. But God has chosen man’s lot for himself. He therefore transfers the rejection, the reprobation, to Christ. Thus the election of the Son of God, is also an election to reprobation. In Jesus Christ is worked out the double predestination of God. The consequence of this is that sinful man is not rejected but accepted. ‘The justification of the sinner in Jesus Christ is the content of predestination in so far as predestination is a No and signifies rejection. On this side, too, it is eternal. It cannot be overthrown or reversed. Rejection cannot again become the portion or affair of man. The exchange which took place on Golgotha, when God chose as his throne the malefactor’s cross, when the Son of God bore what the son of man ought to have borne, took place once and for all in fulfilment of God’s eternal will, and it can never be reversed. There is no condemnation – literally none – for those that are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1)’ (p. 167).

Thirdly, in Jesus Christ, that is in his existence and death and resurrection, there is actualised God’s faithfulness to him and his faithfulness to perform the will of God. God, who has chosen him, stands by him at every point, even in the heart of rejection, and finally justifies and proclaims his choice by the resurrection. And on his side, Jesus, trusting in God’s faithfulness, walks faithfully in the path set before him, even into the midst of rejection. And his faithfulness is justified by the resurrection. This is the type of man’s election. The election of those who are chosen in him consists concretely in their faith in him; that is, they trust in him as the actualisation of God’s faithfulness to him and his own faithfulness to God. Hence, faith in Jesus Christ is election in him.

Here is destroyed the false subjectivity which is concerned about whether one is elect. The answer is: You cannot know anything about God’s will for you except as it is revealed in the one Mediator. He has been chosen for your sake, not for his own. He has suffered the rejection due to you on account of your sin. But you believe in him. You believe that the whole significance of his coming, death and resurrection was the execution of God’s eternal will and purpose, and further, that he carried out God’s will. Therefore, you are in Christ. That which he is and has done is yours. You have been crucified with Christ and have risen again with him. Your rejection has been actualised in him, and in him you are elect.

We can now see that in his landscape gardening Barth has transformed the scene from severity and even gloom into a place of joyfulness and light. He has brought about a miracle that even Capability Brown could not achieve – he has made the sun shine on the scene. It is only after reading his account of the doctrine of predestination that we are able to appreciate the synopsis with which he prefaces the chapter: ‘The doctrine of election is the sum of the Gospel because of all words that can be said or heard it is the best: that God elects man; that God is for man too the One who loves in freedom. It is grounded in the knowledge of Jesus Christ because He is both the electing God and elected man in One. It is part of the doctrine of God because originally God’s election of man is a predestination not merely of man but of Himself. Its function is to bear basic testimony to eternal, free and unchanging grace as the beginning of all the ways and works of God’ (p. 3)” [2]

[1] Professor ANS Lane, in his obituary in the Church Times, 20th May 2016, wrote: “While studying, Parker had, by chance, discovered the writings of Karl Barth, and was advised that, to understand Barth, one must understand Calvin. The outcome was a life devoted primarily to the study of the Reformer, starting with a book on Calvin’s preaching. He did not forget Barth, and was one of the translators of Barth’s multi-volume Church Dogmatics into English. Barth himself said that Parker was the translator who understood him best. He also edited Festschriffts for Barth’s 70th and 80th birthdays”.

[2] Barth, Karl ;  Bromiley, Geoffrey William ;   Torrance, Thomas F.: Church Dogmatics, Volume II: The Doctrine of God, Part 2. Edinburgh : T. & T. Clark, 2004.

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