If God Is Love

God loves. And God loves freely. When God chooses to set his affection on creation, on people, on you, on me, God does this because God chooses, freely, to bestow God’s love upon his creatures.

This is the summary of Barth’s doctrine of God.

And this is why Barth presses the point that the doctrine of election lies at the heart of the doctrine of God.

When we say “God loves freely,” we make a claim about God, not only in Himself, but as one who is postured toward the world. If God is, in fact, the one who loves in freedom, then God must from all eternity be postured toward the creature in free love.

To be postured toward us in love from all eternity is to be not only the one who loves eternally, but the one who elects eternally. Election, for Barth, homes in on God’s free choice to love people.

God loves in freedom, as God is from all eternity. This is not merely a function of the earthly event of Jesus’ appearance to bring salvation. The act in history depends upon, and indicates, a prior eternal election.

I confess to having a few caution flags go up in Barth’s discussion of the place of election in dogmatics (§32.3). Mostly, they sprung from this: I worry that Barth wants to put so much in eternity that the reality of God responding to the world in its brokenness, sinfulness, and enslavement is minimized.

When we put so much of God’s activity in eternity, I worry that the reality, as it’s depicted throughout scripture, that God truly responds to the world and to the cries of God’s people, and to the promises and agreements made is rendered illusory.

When Barth shuns the notion that God is rescuing us from what might be a rival god, is he so focusing on the ideal reign of God that the reality of a conflicting dominion that must be displaced is, in essence, denied (p. 90)?

Coming up next: Barth will develop his doctrine of election on the election, first, of Jesus Christ. This, no doubt, gave rise to the thought among many that simply saying, “in Christ,” seals the deal in favor of a corporate, rather than particular and individual election. The subsequent section discusses the election of the community, and finally the individual is dealt with.

I’m curious: what do you do with election? Does a traditional Reformed outlook work for you? If not, how do you interpret the passages that speak about predestination and election without simply writing them off?

12 thoughts on “If God Is Love”

  1. What do I do with the concept of election?
    It reinforces the phrase, ‘I have called you by name, you are mine.’ It’s not a matter of God having chosen me or us in exclusion to someone else but that it was him, not me that instigated the relationship I have with him.


  2. What do I do with election? I struggle with it! I’m listening carefully to hear your developing thoughts on this – thanks for your careful consideration and exposition of these issues.

  3. Daniel, I think everyone who reads Barth in II.2 winds up with a similar worry. But the point of volume II is that it sets up the aseity of God so that the implications in the world can be handled in volumes III and IV. So “the reality of God responding to the world in its brokenness, sinfulness, and enslavement is minimized”—in volume II. The point is the eternal reality of God, which will ground in the discussions of creation and redemption, but is not grounded in them. It seems to be how Barth answers the question of God’s responsiveness and fidelity without making God contingent.

  4. Also, I think Barth embodies such an absolute monotheism that he can’t say all the things that Paul can say in a polytheistic pagan environment, in which YHWH is one god among many, even if the only true and faithful god. Hell, he can’t even allow for pluralism in the worship of this one deity; Judaism is simply mistaken for its rejection of the true revelation in Jesus Christ, of which YHWH was only a forerunner. And Islam simply doesn’t need to be handled, but is no more theologically welcome.

    There can be no conflicting dominion for Barth, because there can be no conflicting deity. But for sin as being-toward-nothingness, as the self-destructive urge of the creature made possible by its own dynamism, you’ll again have to wait for volume III. With only one possible god, you have the ground of this “impossible possibility” in which the creature actually faces its own dissolution, existentially, at its own hand or by the sheer force of the (again impossible) possibility of non-being. But before he gets there, Barth has set out creation and providence already, and it makes sense in context.

  5. Newbigin was revolutionary for me on this concept/doctrine. He helped me to see that across the biblical narrative, election isn’t about God choosing people to “be saved,” but about his free and loving choosing of a people to be the bearers of the responsibility of making him known (in word and deed) to “the nations.” This means that I can be among the elect and reject the grace of God just like anyone else. I’ll be interested to read if/how Barth’s thoughts on election square with this perspective at all.

  6. This is an interesting post and I hope you continue it. The whole doctrine of God as love is a challenge for me because of the problem of evil. A friend of mine deeply struggles with why God created us in the first place – and allows us to be born into a world of evil. I have some inklings here, but it is not an easy answer. Your description, “the reality of a conflicting dominion that must be displaced” is an interesting one – I think I understand what you mean but would love to read an expansion on this idea as well.

    I believe in predestination and election b/c it is there in scripture. But I believe that it is a corporate one that is found “in Christ” (eph. 1:3-14); meaning that through Christ, God chose & predestined to have for himself a people for his possession. And, I think, this is found “in Christ” – for those who are in him (e.g. those who in faith are “baptized into his death” – Rom. 6:3-4). I don’t think there is an easy answer but I think this allows for free will – and that free will does not undermine God’s sovereignty because in his sovereignty he can choose for humans to have free will (though, of course, it is not a perfectly “free” will – we all are enculturated). If sovereignty meant that God could not allow human free will – that would seem to undermine God’s sovereignty: “He can be all sovereign, except in one area – he can’t allow sovereignty!”

  7. I’ve always felt Barth’s doctrine of election was his best contribution. It is Christ that God eternally elects. There aren’t special people magically written in a book before time and others who are arbitrarily left out. Christ is who is elected and we participate in that election through our participation in Christ.

  8. I understand ‘Election’ to be to service for the sake of others; and this preeminently in Christ whose vocation was for the sake of the world.

    Pre-destined: In Christ, God has pre-determined our final destination or estate (to sound all Westminstery)- to be like Christ= truly mature human/or like the Creator in whose image human beings were made.

    ‘Estate’ is about as close as I can go to Federal Calvinism :-)

  9. I think election is dynamic – in fact I call it ‘dynamic election’. God can and does use our idea of modern (western) election – but a look through the narrative does not make these the norm, but the exception. Instead it is more mysterious and complex than I think we can ever fully know. But I agree that in connection with previous comments that it is communal, rooted in Israel’s historical concept (esp. Eph 1), and for the sake of others. I would make an argument that this is more biblically and historically accurate than Augustine’s Machinean view or the medieval interpretations.

  10. What I do with predestination. (reformational Arminian)Approximately 3 senses, the 2nd one similar to some of Barth’s ideas.

    1)Unconditional predestination of Christ as the firstborn.

    2) Unconditional corporate election of all people in Christ (God’s plan/desire for people to be united in Christ).

    Also, 3) Conditional election of those who will believe and continue through grace (condition is Christ, what the individual does when they come to the rock).

    The 1st two senses of predestination and election are, in my mind, similar to Barth’s idea of God’s free love.

  11. So many good questions Daniel. Section 33 will bring it all together for you, especially kingdom and evil. What I would like to hear from you is whether you would interpret him as a universalist in section 33 or not, the common criticism of his doctrine of election. I can see where some would find it, but Barth I think is not, and that he is instead at great pains to show, as you have shown above, that God freely loves us in grace. That the divine yes overrides the divine no. But he still locates reprobates outside of Christ who suffer for their sin, while elsewhere calling Christ both elect and reprobate, the divine yes and no all at once.

  12. As a Lutheran, the traditional Reformed understanding doesn’t work for me. For one example, though we would agree that predestination is, indeed, for people to “be saved” we find its biblical usage restricts it only to the elect. There is no predestination of the wicked to damnation. Another example would be that, unlike the Reformed emphasis, we don’t see election/predestination as intended to contradict universal grace, but as intending to impress upon us the truth of salvation by grace alone.

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