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.
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.