Jesus Christ v. Eternal Principles

At the beginning of Unlocking Romans, I reflected on how Christians have, at times, defined God. Scrolling through Augustine, Anselm, and the Westminster Confession, I summarized thus:

Not only do these Christian definitions, like their Greek philosophical counterparts, all focus on a g/God who is wholly other, they also define God in universal terms without reference to the story of Israel.

In the Scriptures of Israel, however, God’s identity is inseparable from a particular people and from certain actions performed on behalf of that people. God is not known in universal abstract qualities but in limiting and particular actions.

Little did I know at the time that this insistence that God be understood from with the particulars of the outworking of the story of Israel would be the heart of Karl Barth’s call for a massive overhaul of the doctrine of election.

When Barth talks about the “Foundation of the Doctrine of Election” in Church Dogmatics §32.2, he means to call us back to Jesus Christ as the foundation.

Where the history of doctrine points to the church going awry in its articulation of what it means to say “God elects” is at the point when it says, “God elects [full stop].”

If it is going to be the church’s doctrine of election, Barth calls us to say instead, “God elects in Jesus Christ.”

In step with Barth’s overall theological program, for something to be known as true in Christian theology, it can only be known because God has made it known in Jesus Christ.

When it come to election, this means placing front and center Paul’s claim in Ephesians 1: God chose us in him before the foundation of the world.

The problems with the church’s talk of election have risen, in Barth’s estimation, from principles such as power or majesty or omnipotence or sovereignty becoming the determining factors in the confession that God elects. This puts the whole idea within the realm of a God hidden behind the God who is known in Christ, and makes election a secretive eternal act that is not disclosed, as such, in Christ.

Such a doctrine can never be gospel, because the good news is revealed in Jesus Christ.

When we first started talking about Barth and election last week, someone commented on my FB Wall that Barth’s position puts him out of step with all the great theologians of the church, Augustine and Aquinas no less than Luther and Calvin.

Barth acknowledges this. He does it with some trepidation. But he parts company with them as he pinpoints the place where they leave “in Christ” behind, seeking an electing God hidden behind. For Barth, this simply will not do.

19 thoughts on “Jesus Christ v. Eternal Principles”

  1. I wonder, though, whether Barth’s tendency toward exclusive focus on Christ creates another set of problems. The election of Israel precedes God’s electing activity in Christ, and the work of the Holy Spirit in drawing people into Christ continues after the resurrection (1 Thess 1:4-5). In other words, my question is whether Barth really engages the full narrative of Scripture, or whether it gets truncated in a different sort of way that might also be critiqued as a different sort of philosophical reduction to a different “first principle,” this time centering in a more abstract Christology rather than in an abstract doctrine of God.

    1. This description of Barth (and your appreciation of him) surprises me. Because in my view of Barth he is a-historical. He indeed has a high Christology, but relativizes the full (historical!) narrative of Scripture. I recognize the response of Jim Brownson.

    2. The Israel question is one that I’ve had in mind a good deal as I’ve been reading this section of Barth, Jim. In part what I’m seeing is “Barth the friend of the Lou Martyn apocalypticists!” There’s so much focus on Christ that the previous history almost falls off the map.

      KB does address David and Solomon and even Jehoiachin and Zerubbabel in the small print sections. But (I’m going from my poor memory here, because I don’t have the book to hand) I believe he says that they are indications of a different, consummate election that they themselves could not truly fulfill. Or something like that. He gives a Christological rereading of the significance of Israel’s election.

      1. “[Barth] gives a Christological rereading of the significance of Israel’s election.” – But isn’t this true of the Christian tradition as a whole? Even if, as I hope we increasingly do, we stress God’s irrevocable choice of Israel as God’s people, and as we disavow anti-Semitic interpretations and actions springing from other readings of the tradition, and even as we reclaim Jesus’ Jewishness, and all the rest… It seems to me that once we are confessing Jesus as “Christ,” i.e., Messiah, we are giving a Christological re-reading of God’s history with Israel. I think you are right to point out those small print passages – I don’t think “the previous history almost falls off the map” at all.

  2. 1 Peter 1:1-2 and 2:4-10 also talk of election and chosing…but choosing Christ and then, because we are in Christ, we are chosen…the election is because of Jesus, not because God hand picked people… God hand picked the son and, when we’re in the Son, we’re also hand picked (living stones).

    If this is what Barth is saying, then I think I can whole-heartedly go along with a doctrine of election from that perspective…

    Wait…did an Anabaptist just agree with the doctrine of election? ;-)

  3. You need to amend your comment: this is where Barth *follows* Luther in departing from his predecessors. The critique above is precisely the one Luther leveled against the Scholastics. Every discussion of the nature and working of God must begin with and be continually grounded in the revelation of God in Jesus. If it does not, you will always end up constructing an abstract, fearsome, hidden God of power and wrath who does not become involved in the mess of human life, and there will be no Gospel to preach about that God.

  4. As I have come to understand things, when Paul tells his readers that they are elect it is yet another way of saying that they have become God’s Israel. It is not a one-by-one, TULIP-focussed, Calvinistic affirmation, but simply saying, ‘You are no longer the Gentiles you once were.’ Also, such things, as far as I can recall, are addressed to churches (you/ye as distinct from thee/thou). And since Jesus is the faithful Israelite, then it is impossible to separate the statement of election from being Christ’s. Tell me I’m wrong, Daniel.

    1. John, I think that you’re basically on a similar track as Barth, though he would say that Christ, not Israel, is “the thing.” Or, perhaps this is better, he’d say that true Israel is the “in Christ” ones.

      I think that you’re basically on target, John, but that there are places, such as Rom 9 (yes, Rom 9) where differentiation among individuals seems to be the point of the argument and corporate categories perhaps even create the problem Paul needs to address.

      1. I find I can no longer read Rom 9 in that way, but rather see it as a narrative summary of God’s dealings with Israel. I think that would be Wright’s take.

        I have some questions about the meaning of ‘in Christ’ since reading Brondos’s Paul On The Cross.

        1. Maybe you can help me with Rom 9, John. Yes, it’s talking about God’s dealing with Israel. But isn’t the point of the argument to help explain why, in Paul’s “now” as well, God is selecting some individuals from within Israel and not others? It seems to be the nation’s story for the purpose of explaining individuals’ acceptance or rejection.

          1. Me help you? You must be joking. No; I don’t really think that’s the point, though. I think he is explaining the redefinition of Israel, and driving home the idea that it is not dependent on those who have hereditary rights, but on God’s right. You wrote: Yes, it’s talking about God’s dealing with Israel. But I had said, ‘a narrative summary of God’s dealings with Israel.‘ Which is to say that the individuals and quotations he mentions are given in the OT story order: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses (Pharaoh), Jeremiah, Hosea. I do not see this principle of election being lifted out of that narrative and applied on a personal level. Clearly those who are of faith are the true Israel. But I think one of the most important words in the passage may well be ‘us’ in verse 24, which indicates a collective rather than individual focus.

            This is a far from adequate response, but it’ll have to do for now as I am tired, working and travelling with no leisure time. I’m unlikely to be able to respond properly for several days.

      2. What i like is the particularity of the idea of election. When God elected Israel God did so as the God who brought them out of bondage. They become God’s people through the event of grace we call the Passover. IN the New Testament Christ is the passover even through whom by God’s grace are are elect to the NEW COVENANT and i suspect that we live under the new covenant in many ways like the Israelites lived under the Old Covenant, choosing and not choosing to belong.

  5. I appreciate KB’s attempt to define election as in Christ. However, in doing so, I fear that KB misreads the earlier Reformed Tradition. His complaint that the earlier Reformed conceived of the act of election as individualistic, particularistic, and without rich reference to Christology is, I think, mistaken. By the 1590s if not earlier, the Reformed consensus in Europe and Britain had developed the idea of the “Covenant of Redemption.” By the time of the Westminster Confession (1640s), this idea was widespread among the Reformed theologians. Writers such as Robert Rollock (1590s), Johannes Cocceius (d. 1640s), and John Owen (d. 1680s) made much of it. What was the covenant of redemption? It is the claim that in the intra-Trinitarian counsel of wisdom upon which all creation and redemption hinged, the Father in love commissioned the Son to become the incarnate Redeemer of the Father’s elect, and that the Son willingly undertook to do so. Owen mentions also the covenantal concord of the Holy Spirit in this intraTrinitarian wisdom, but he should have been more insistent on the point. Now, one might claim that this means that election is strictly the Father’s business, and that Christ has nothing to do with it; however, in the Reformed consensus, the decrees of God (plural) are most properly referred to as the decree (singular) of God. I.e., creation, election, and redemption are inseparable in the divine wisdom that founded the world, so the Covenant of Redemption cannot be separated from election. Add to this the fact that these Reformed theologians accepted the much earlier doctrine of the Eastern Fathers called “perichoresis” (the mutual interpenetration of the persons and works of the members of the Triune Godhead, i.e., their “intra-choreography”), and one is hard pressed to assert KB’s complaint, at least in regard to Reformed consensus of the late 16th and 17th centuries, that election is un-Christological. The Scriptures indeed assert that the Father elects (John 6:37, 39; 17:6-9). But the Scriptures also clearly assert that the Father elects to life in the Son (John 6:40; 17:2, 24). These theologians understood that truth long before Barth, I suspect.

  6. In 1577 the Formula of Concord stated the following for Lutherans:

    Therefore, if we wish to think or speak correctly and profitably concerning eternal election, or the predestination and ordination of the children of God to eternal life, we should accustom ourselves not to speculate concerning the bare, secret, concealed, inscrutable foreknowledge of God, but how the counsel, purpose, and ordination of God in Christ Jesus, who is the true Book of Life, is revealed to us through the Word, namely, that the entire doctrine concerning the purpose, counsel, will, and ordination of God pertaining to our redemption, call, justification, and salvation should be taken together; as Paul treats and has explained this article Rom. 8:29f ; Eph. 1:4f , as also Christ in the parable, Matt. 22:1ff


    Accordingly, this eternal election of God is to be considered in Christ, and not outside of or without Christ. For in Christ, the Apostle Paul testifies, Eph. 1:4f , He hath chosen us before the foundation of the world, as it is written: He hath made us accepted in the Beloved. This election, however, is revealed from heaven through the preaching of His Word, when the Father says, Matt. 17:6: This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; hear ye Him. And Christ says, Matt. 11:28: Come unto Me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. And concerning the Holy Ghost Christ says, John 16:14: He shalt glorify Me; for He shall receive of Mine, and shall show it unto you. Thus the entire Holy Trinity, God Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, directs all men to Christ, as to the Book of Life, in whom they should seek the eternal election of the Father. For this has been decided by the Father from eternity, that whom He would save He would save through Christ, as He [Christ] Himself says, John 14:6: No man cometh unto the Father but by Me. And again, John 10:9: I am the Door; by Me, if any man enter in, he shall be saved.

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