Election and Grace

The history of the doctrine of predestination has at times viewed humanity as the recipients of a stark dual decree of God: some are predestined to life, others to destruction.

As Karl Barth lays out his project for a revisionist assessment of the notion of election, he demands that the focus of election be the electing grace of God in Jesus Christ. In other words, predestination is not about God creating two categories of salvation and reprobation and populating those before all time (Church Dogmatics §32.1).

Instead, predestination is God’s free choice, from all eternity, to enter into an eternal relationship with humanity through the election the one man, Jesus of Nazareth.

Opening his discussion of election, Barth can even say that election is the gospel. Why? Because it is conceived as God’s free act of love toward the creature, the choice God makes not to allow the “No” that humanity perpetually flings at God be the last word, but instead to overcome it with a divine “Yes” that is mediated through the Man who himself said “Yes” to God throughout his life.

When Barth moves to discuss three facets of God made known in election (freedom, mystery, and righteousness) the exposition seems to fall into the sort of topical theologizing that Barth overcomes at his better moments.

However, the stage is set for a reimagining of what the Bible never hesitates to affirm (but which we all too often feel skittish about embracing ourselves): the people of God are, also, the elect of God.

12 thoughts on “Election and Grace”

  1. Going along with this, we tend to think of election as a means of exclusion, while in scripture it is often presented as a means of inclusion. In the premier example of election, Abraham was told that all the families of the earth would be blessed because of him (Genesis 12.3). Paul calls this “scripture preaching the gospel in advance to Abraham” (Galatians 3.8). God chose not in order to keep others out, but to bring them in.

  2. Looking forward to hearing the results of your interaction with Barth on election. The real question I’d like to know your thoughts on after you finish this section: is Barth’s view of election what Paul had in mind when he used this language?

  3. The key sentence is this one: “Instead, predestination is God’s free choice, from all eternity, to enter into an eternal relationship with humanity through the election the one man, Jesus of Nazareth.” And in this sentence, the key phrase is “with humanity.” The crucial question is whether Paul envisions election (it may be clearer to use this word more consistently) encompassing humanity as a whole, or encompassing some portion of humanity. Texts like Rom 11:7 and 1Thess 1:4f. strongly suggest the latter.

    Also, this issue is, of course, at the heart of Barth’s move toward universalism–all are elect in Christ. I’ll be interested in your take on that, as you work through all of this.

    1. Yes, Jim, this “humanity” piece is the sticking point. Is there a new humanity that does not encompass everyone who was of the old humanity? What does Paul mean when he says, “all”?

      I see, increasingly, the significance of the corporate, even cosmic characters for making sense of how Paul sees the work of Jesus functioning. But there is still the bit about “in Christ” being something that’s realized through faith, Spirit, and baptism.

  4. I really like this line of thought, not least because the typical predestination/election debate has always been, IMO, a dehumanizing one.

    But if God predestined that He would save the world through Christ and govern the world through Christ (among many other things), then it starts to emphasize the love of the Creator and His gospel heart from the beginning.

    Election, too, comes into better focus. Adam and Israel both were chosen to reflect and represent the Creator on the earth. Having failed, the second Adam and the quintessential Israel is chosen. From there, all who are in Christ are similarly chosen for the task of reflecting and representing God.

    Is this Barth’s trajectory, or am I misunderstanding?

  5. Dr. Kirk, I have been doing some reading in Barth’s doctrine of election recently and I agree with your review above. However, I don’t think Barth is against recognizing that God elects people.

    I do think that you are on to the weakness of his work, however, at least in light of contemporary Pauline studies and the emphasis on Jew and Gentile together as the people of God.

    But Election for Barth answers the Latin, “cur Deus homo.” (Why the God-man?) In discussing election and predestination “we are not outside the sphere of the name of Jesus Christ but within it and within the sphere of the unity of very God and very man indicated by this name.” (p. 60)

    It is within the election of Jesus Christ that the people of God find themselves the “obiectum praedestinationis” (the object of predestination).

    Section 33 was on of the greatest theological works I’ve ever read. His small print recounting the history of the doctrine of predestination (supralapsarian, infralapsarian) on pp. 127-145, is very appreciative. Its a masterful theological performance.

    I realize my criticism is a bit unfair since I am working from the vantage-point of a latter section you have yet to review. But Barth’s work here is so exciting and I could not resist.


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