John Capper: “For Barth, both election and joy belong fundamentally to the doctrine of God”.

John Capper

Karl Barth’s doctrine of election

(an excerpt from John Capper’s Cambridge University Doctoral Thesis (1998) on Karl Barth’s Theology of Joy. John is Academic Dean and Senior Lecturer in Theology at Stirling Theological College, University of Divinity, Melbourne, Australia)

….The basis of Barth’s doctrine of election is the notion of Jesus Christ as God’s unequivocal “Yes!” to humanity. It is this positive basis of divine engagement which is constantly to the fore in Barth’s promulgation of his doctrine of election – a doctrine based entirely on his understanding of election as the work of God who is wholly gracious and fundamentally forgiving. In founding the doctrine in the act of God in Jesus Christ, Barth avoids any semblance of pelagianism. In similarly rooting the response of humanity in Jesus Christ, he likewise avoids any possible semi-pelagian understandings. Let us then turn to a closer engagement with the central texts of CD II.2.

In discussing the “orientation” of the doctrine of election, Barth notes that the context is fundamentally the gospel, the evangel, good news, glad tidings – the liberating and uplifting message of Jesus Christ.[1] It is in this form and this form alone (the election of grace in Jesus Christ) [that] the tidings of the divine decision made in Jesus Christ are glad tidings (frohe Botschaft) directed to all men, directed indeed to the whole world.[2] In parallel with his argument that the message of the evangel is Yes and not No,[3] he states that it is not a mixed message of joy and terror, salvation and damnation. Originally and finally it is not dialectical but non-dialectical. It does not proclaim in the same breath both good and evil, both help and destruction, both life and for the “joyous revelation” of which creation waits in stillness and silence.[4]

The revelation is received as well as given on the basis of the grace of God. It is only because of the work of the Holy Spirit in the whole created realm that there is the possibility of revelation, of response – and thus of praise and joy. To be without the Spirit of God’s grace is to be indentured in a human world which is a boring apprenticeship for an irrelevant eternity. Barth will tolerate no such vision of God or of creation. As he states:

…except with grace, and through grace, and to the glory of grace, there can be no rejoicing and praise of creation, (keinen Ruhm und Jubel der Schöpfung) no receiving of the Holy Spirit and of the enlightenment and guidance of the Holy Spirit, no glory of saints and angels in the consummation of His kingdom, no height and no depth.[5]

It is the glory of this electing grace in Jesus Christ as elected and electing which allows Barth to make the link between joy and predestination, because Jesus Christ is the basis of confidence, consolation and joy in the elect. Jesus Christ is himself the basis of trust and hope.[6] The elected person will have the “resurrection and prayer (of Jesus) both in the mind and in the heart”.[7] Thus it is that predestination is (when understood within Barth’s conceptualization of election) a source of joy and not terror in the elect.[8] This is the outcome of the affirming “Yes” of God, which is fundamental to Barth’s doctrine of election. Election, like revelation, evokes joy and awe.[9] Election is the result of God’s constancy,[10] love[11] and God’s “determination to blessedness” which flows from God’s glory, which is “the overflowing of the inner perfection and joy of God”.[12] This overflow of God’s glory necessitates the conferral of God’s very self on those who, “in and through the community, are the object of divine predestination”.[13] Human blessedness is thus to be understood as participation in not just receipt of God’s blessedness.[14] This cannot be interpreted without reference to Barth’s understanding of time and eternity, since the act of God in election draws the elect into fellowship with God, who then becomes “the ground of perfect joy in time and eternity”.[15]

As Barth links election to the nature of God, so he makes a connection between joy and hope, with each experienced in the life of Jesus Christ. Similarly he links obedience to joy in human life, with grateful obedience epitomizing the fullness of human existence. Obedience is also linked with gladness in Barth’s anthropology…..Barth grounds the right behaviour of the elect in the good pleasure of God, who is in the midst of a rejoicing heavenly host.[16] Obedience is also portrayed as a summons to fellowship with God, wherein the elect “hear the command…that [they] may belong to Him”.[17] In the recognition of the judgement of Christ is “joy at the prospect of coming into God’s judgement”.[18] It is in this context of calling that Barth notes that God gives his Holy Spirit “in order that His own relationship to His Father may be repeated in us”.[19] Thus we may be “all the more joyfully prepared to live our spiritual life humbly but courageously…in prayer, in thankfulness and worship and intercession”.[20] It is on this final note that Barth concludes his doctrine of God, the joyful, electing God, with the recognition that the elect, in prayer, sigh “continually but joyfully, as those who have received the Spirit: Veni Creator Spiritus !”.[21] The linking of the joy of God in the election of Jesus Christ to joy allows Barth’s doctrine of election, in the context of his redefinition of predestination, to be a fundamentally joyful doctrine. It is a doctrine which adds to rather than subtracting from the joy of the elect, and of the whole creation.

John found Pierre Maury to be a kindred spirit when he started reading him and then writing his essay “Serious Joy of the Ultimate Decision” for “Election, Barth and the French Connection: How Pierre Maury gave a ‘Decisive Impetus’ to Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Election“.

Take, for example, this excerpt from Maury’s ‘Election and Faith‘:

“Whoever has understood that, whoever does not speak of this too hastily, can rejoice that such is the secret of God. He can move forward in this mystery and know that, all things considered, election is always positive when it is in Christ, that it has only been negative for him on Good Friday. Before the cross we do not understand and we worship, we do not question, we bless. And whom would we worship if not the one who has extended grace toward us? Why would we not bless, if not because of his positive grace? The cross where Christ is condemned does not condemn us, it makes us children of God. By it we pass from death to life, because the Son has made our death his and here more than ever, as Paul says “There is only yes in him.”[1]

Once more, let us say it again, that this is only true in Christ, that is to say, before the cross, in faith. Here, here alone, here truly, faith knows that double predestination has become simple and that “God is love.” This is because they have known it; this is because they have believed it, which Calvin and so many others have above all sung about, uniquely, the joy of election. Not that they were hard of heart—harder than us—that is to say more knowledgeable and more proud in their chosen discipline. Just simply, that they had understood that in Christ crucified there is only cause for the believer to experience a triumphant joy. Believing, from now on believing here in their election, cannot be to believe in their own perdition.[2] In the same way, the Apostles Creed does not say, in the third article: I believe in eternal death—but nevertheless it does not say: there is no eternal death—so in the same way, in Christ—without ever denying that one cannot not be in Christ—there is no negative election”.

Election, Barth and the French Connection: How Pierre Maury gave a ‘Decisive Impetus’ to Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Election“. p. 49.

[1]. Translator’s note: Maury appears to be alluding to Paul in 2 Corinthians 1:20: “For no matter how many promises God has made, they are ‘Yes’ in Christ…” (NIV).

[2]. Translator’s note: Or “ruin.”

John Capper’s footnotes

[1] CD II.2.12. “The truth which must now occupy us, the truth of the doctrine or predestination, is first and last and in all circumstances the sum of the Gospel, no matter how it may be understood in detail, no matter what apparently contradictory aspects it may present to us. It is itself evangel: glad tidings; news which uplifts and sustains.” (Sie ist Evangelium: gute Nachricht, erfreuliche, aufrichtende, tröstende, hilfreiche Botschaft.KD 11.) Hartwell, Theology of Karl Barth, 105, describes this doctrine, so different from Calvin’s against which it defines itself, as beating at the heart of Barth’s theology.

[2] CD II.2.26. (KD 27 – frohe is emphatic earlier in the same discussion).

[3] The tenor of the argument is more subtle, with Barth arguing that the No is “said for the sake of the Yes and not for its own sake.…[but] it is not Yes and No, but in its substance, in the origin and scope of its utterance, it is altogether Yes.” CD II.2.13. (KD 13).

[4] CD II.2.32.

[5] CD II.2.93. (KD 100).

[6] “The mystery of the elected man Jesus is the divine and human steadfastness which is the end of all God’s ways and works and therefore the object and content of the divine predestination. And the fact that it is actualized in Him and on their behalf is the fact to which those who are elected “in Him” must cling, the fact in which their confidence must repose, the fact from which their joy and consolation must be derived. And this fact is one which is ever new, and one which is their strength and wisdom in all circumstances.” CD II.2.126. (KD 135-6).

[7] CD II.2.127: “…And this means to be elected. For it is the man that does this who “in Him” is the object of the divine election of grace.” — (“An Jesus glauben heißt: seine Auferstehung und sein Gebet vor Augen und im Herzen haben. Und eben das heißt Erwähltsein. Eben der Mensch, der das tut, ist «in ihm» der Gegenstand der göttlichen Gnadenwahl.” KD 136).

[8] “The facts (regarding that which God has put away from the elect) are true, but it is also true that they are far outweighed by the resurrection of Jesus Christ and that as the result of this resurrection they belong already to the vanished past. The thought of God’s predestination cannot, then, awaken in us the mixture of terror and joy which would be in order if we were confronted partly by promise and partly by threat. It can awaken only joy, pure joy. For this order is found in the divine predestination itself, and it cannot be revoked.” CD II.2.174. As Barth’s note following this section underscores: “This interpretation of double predestination stands or falls…with the view that the divine predestination is to be understood only within the election of Jesus Christ.” CD II.2.174.

[9] See CD II.1.223.

[10] See CD II.2.273.

[11] CD II.2.412.

[12] “The determination of the elect to be the object of the love of God is undoubtedly his determination to blessedness. The glory of God, to share in which is the intention and purpose of His love for the creature, is the overflowing of the inner perfection and joy of God. (Eben die Bestimmung des Erwählten zum Gegenstand der Liebe Gottes ist nun zweifellos seine Bestimmung zur S e l i g k e i t . Gottes Herrlichkeit, an der das Geschöpf zu beteiligen der Wille und das Ziel seiner Liebe ist, ist das Überströmen der inneren Vollkommenheit und Freude Gottes.) God chooses the elect from eternity and for eternity, that he may catch up a beam or a drop of His own blessedness and live as its possessor, that he may rejoice in Him and with Him. It is for blessedness that God has determined man, as He determines Himself in His own Son for unity with man, as in Him He offered up no less than Himself.” CD II.2.412. (KD 455).

[13] CD II.2.313.

[14] CD II.2.412. (KD 456).

[15] CD II.2.413. Gunton, Becoming and Being, 208, notes that in Barth “reconciliation is trinitarian and voluntaristic, by reference to the free act of God whose act carries necessity with it.” Limited by his agenda of engagement with Hartshorne, Gunton does not pick up on the many references to the relationality of God as Trinity which are present in the Church Dogmatics, thus missing an even more significant challenge to Hartshorne’s relational process theology: a challenge to the “panentheism” which finds all in God, but does not allow God to overflow in abundance, love and joy to creation.

[16] “The act of the eternal predestination and election of Jesus Christ, to which God’s command ultimately reaches back, this beginning of all the ways and works of God both generally and therefore in our life, is the act of his ‘good-pleasure’ [«Wohlgefallens»] and therefore His joy, and it is in keeping with this that its fulfilment in time was surrounded by the jubilation of the heavenly hosts. In and with the decision to which we are summonsed by God’s command there has simply to be an echo of this good-pleasure of God Himself, of this jubilation of the angels.” CD II.2.611-2. (KD 680).

[17] CD II.2.738.

[18] CD II.2.741.

[19] CD II.2.780.

[20] CD II.2.780-1.

[21] CD II.2.781.

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