Colin Gunton’s summary of Karl Barth’s doctrine of election – The Election of the Individual

Colin Gunton

From The Barth Lectures, Transcribed and edited by P.H. Brazier, T & T Clark, 2007, 120-1.

CD II/2 paragraph 35 The Election of the Individual

“…Here he says that the choice of godlessness is void: you cannot ultimately choose to be godless. Everybody is called to eternal life on the basis of God’s decision; but not everybody lives as if this were true. Barth: You can opt for Godlessness in a sense that it is precisely those that God elects (CD II/2: 321).

Christ dies for all! The difference he lays out is in calling and not status (CD II/2: 345). All human beings have the status of being elected by God: some appear to realise that differently. And therefore no one is in principle rejected, except of course, Jesus – and he on behalf of others.

Barth: The rejected man who alone and truly takes and bears away the wrath of God is called Jesus Christ. He is the rejected as and because he is the elect. In view of his election there is no other rejected other than himself (CD II/2: 349 & 353).

This leads to an important conclusion: the tradition that there are two classes – those elected, those not elected. Barth sees no absolute opposition between the two: the number of the elect is open and not closed, as compared to the Augustinian tradition. Barth explains that there is no closed number in the Augustinian tradition or in the idea that a certain limited number of elect are to take the place of fallen angels (CD II/2: 412). Barth states that because of the openness of God’s gift the number is not defined until all is over. This leaves the question, who are the rejected? It follows from what Barth has said that the only ones rejected are those who choose to be! Those who reject their election are therefore those who are lost. A ‘rejected’ man, and he puts rejected in quote marks, is one who isolates himself from God by resisting his election as it has taken place in Jesus Christ. God is for him; he is against God; God is gracious but he is ungrateful, God receives him but he withdraws himself. But it doesn’t follow from that that this is for eternity. The effect to refuse your election might be overwritten by God. Therefore, the question is raised, Barth is sometimes accused by more traditional Calvinists of being a universalist. ……he is not saying , this is a doctrine about God, only secondly about the human race. He is not saying all go willy-nilly to heaven: that seems to be the logic, but that is God’s decision not ours. You can’t say whether we are universalists or not, that is not in our decision. And the case of Judas Iscariot of course is the classic one and there is a wonderful passage, a splendid passage, where he discusses this;

The New Testament gives us no direct information about the outcome of this extraordinary for and against (CD II/2:476)

The New Testament simply doesn’t tell us: it tells us that Judas dies in an unpleasant way. It doesn’t tell us what God does finally – woe unto him of course – but that doesn’t mean necessarily forever. And he makes the crucial point that the elect and the rejected are two sides of each of us, two sides of our story, not two classes of people (CD II/2:506). And that is the interesting thing that he has said about all of this. I think this is an absolutely great piece of theological revision, it is an absolutely astonishing overturning of the tradition.”

Colin Ewart Gunton (19 January 1941 – 6 May 2003) was an outstanding and much loved English systematic theologian and United Reformed Church minister, who made a major contribution, in particular, to our understanding of the doctrine of the trinity. He was Professor of Christian Doctrine at King’s College, London, from 1984.

Matthew Frost –  Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago – posted this wonderful reflection on this same theme on the Karl Barth Facebook Discussion Group:

“The community, as the principal image that grounds individuals, is a community drawn to God, not a community elect in itself. Nor are there for Barth communities or individuals rejected in themselves. There is only a mass of humanity called to responsibility before God, a mass of humanity of which the community is a part in every way, exempt from no aspect of its fallenness: a rejection that inevitably shapes and qualifies its claims to acceptance of God, but does nothing to change God’s subjection of the creature to grace.
The community in its Jewish and Christian duality for Barth, as a human reality, is where we are called to stand by the God who self-elects and self-determines in the act by which our existence at all is determined as the creature: election. But the twofold form of the community in that sense is not its nature, is not constituted by election. The church and synagogue are not elect in themselves, or bodies of elect people in themselves. The covenant of grace is the nature of the creature, the total creature and not humanity alone, much less any of the parts we have falsely divided ourselves into.
It is God who self-constitutes and self-elects, who has eternally determined the total creature for partnership with God and for salvation before it was created, who at the centre and apex of history in this lost time between the Fall and the ‘eschaton’ has eternally accomplished our reconciliation—and at all points before and after has been, is, and will be realising that grace upon us as resisting objects who do not stay in the state to which God would like to get us as responsible partners.
We are not, in any of the three spheres of the economy, direct objects of election for Barth. There are no fixed numbers, but one: one elect, the same one rejected, who is the determining subject and object of God’s own will, and who was in the beginning before the creature was at all.”

Leave a Reply