Election and the God-Man

Blogsphere confessional: I’m over the predestination debate.

Been there. Done that. Committed myself. Realized that the debates makes people jerks/reveals that we are jerks. Pulled out. Don’t care anymore.

In particular, I find discussions of predestination to be theologically thin because they spend so much time in the ether that the story as it actually unfolds fades from view.

Barth, though, invites a reconsideration of predestination with a relentless focus on Jesus Christ, focusing on Jesus Christ himself as the object of God’s election (Dogmatics ยง33.1) daring me to give it one more try.

The section begins with what appears to be an intentional echo of Ephesians 1, as Barth begins sentence after sentence with “In Him…” Ephesians 1 was Calvin’s go-to text for discussing predestination.

Barth is acutely aware of the charge of those who, like Roger Olson, assert that the Calvinist’s God is a moral monster. Barth is not only aware of this, he agrees with the critique. To him, the absolute decree of God is the demon produced in predestinarian thought that must be exorcised.

Thus, instead of some “absolute decree,” we are to focus on the Word of God who is Jesus Christ, the one whom God has ordained to bear God’s name. This, says Barth, is the essence of election: in the beginning was the word, and the word was God, and the word became flesh.

Election, in short, is God’s determination “that the goal and meaning of all His dealings with the as yet non-existent universe should be the fact that in His Son He wold be gracious towards man, united Himself with him” (101).

Barth divides his subsequent discussion in two: as God, Jesus Christ elects; as human, Jesus Christ is elected.

This gets to be a mess.

But before we get to the mess, here’s where it’s helpful: it takes the focus of election off of ourselves as responders, and onto Jesus as the Elect One who also faithfully followed God throughout his life.

Now to the mess: Barth has an insufficiently developed understanding of the significance of being human, especially within the story of Israel, and thus ends up placing too much of Jesus’ function as representative and Lord on his divinity.

Here’s a summation of Barth’s concern:

For where can Jesus Christ derive the authority and power to be Lord and Head of all others and how can these others be elected “in Him,” and how can they see their election in Him the first of the elect, and how can they find in His election the assurance of their own, if He is only the object of election and not Himself its Subject, if He is only an elect creature and not primarily and supremely the electing Creator. Obviously in a strict and serious sense we can never say of any creature that other creatures are elect “in it,” that it is their Lord and Head, and that in its election they can and should have assurance of their own.

How can Jesus Christ derive authority and power to be Lord? By being the obedient Davidic and Adamic son whom God appointed to rule over all things–the one who, because he was obedient, was given a name that was not his before!

How can his election be the assurance of our own? Only if his is truly the election of a human being such that other human beings might know that God can choose even those in the likeness of sinful flesh!

In what sense could we be elect in another? Only in the sense that this other is like unto us such that we might bear his image as the renewal of our own!

Even Barth’s desire to ground the story of election more in the story of the God who truly is remains too far removed from the biblical story.

This is so because in turning to election, Barth jumps immediately to the Trinity outside of time rather than the revelation of Jesus as one whose humanity speaks to us about the word of God in time. And this means, not primarily as witness to the God who is beyond time, but showing us in the here and now how God works within a particular earthly story.

Barth is pointing us in the right direction by demanding we focus on Christ, but I’m not sure he’s walked far enough down the road toward he gestures.

10 thoughts on “Election and the God-Man”

  1. Paragraph 34 is all about Israel and the church, and Barth says this aspect of election has to be considered “simultaneously” with what he just said about Jesus Christ (195). He then applies the insights of paragraphs 33-34 to individuals in paragraph 35. So, Barth may actually agree with you!

  2. I’m wondering if your worries are generated by a too strictly progressive, rather than also proleptic, understanding of the relationship between time and election. It seems to me that for you, because Adam and David come before Jesus, we have to understand him in terms generated in a strictly linear historical progression from Adam through David and finally Christ, ie. we have only to understand Christ in Adamic and Davidic terms. But it seems to me that the New Testament indicates to us a revisionist hermeneutic of the Old Testament so that we re-understand Adam and David in Christological terms. Progression and prolepsis then work in a dynamic interchange so that we understand Christ in terms of his Adamic role in humanity and Abrahamic/Mosaic/Davidic role in Israel but, since he alone is the eternal Word made flesh, we also return to those figures and understand them in new light so that the simply human roles they were given to play in the history God has elected are seen to testify to a fulfillment which surpasses them and makes their simply human place impossible in and of itself, needing to be taken up and recapitulated in the earthly mission of the God-man for their real significance to be understood.

    To re-ramble this ramble, I’d say against your critique that Barth has an insufficient anthropology, it might be that you aren’t letting the radicality of his doctrine of God in its eternal turning toward time in the electing/elected humanity of Christ close the gap enough so that Christ could be seen as THE reality of God with us and us with God from which all other demonstrations of that reality, both before and after THE event, derive their reality and in light of which, therefore, they can be properly understood. Your concern is to radicalize our understanding of humanity so that we would see no need to stress Christ’s divinity in coming to terms with the NT’s soteriology. Barth wants to radicalize both theology proper and anthropology in light of Christology.

    1. Adam, I’m sure you’re right about KB’s response to me. It’s Jesus as revelation of God who captures Barth’s heart.

      In the case of union with Christ, though, I can’t shake the sense that Barth has focused too much on the eternal God idea and thus not allowed the larger framework of Paul’s (& Peter’s?) “in Christ” theology to influence his understanding of how someone can represent us. Most of what Paul says about our being in Christ has to do squarely with Jesus’ humanness: crucified with him, buried with him, raised with him (and their implications).

      It seems to me that the representation we need, the representation that can save us, is the representation of the Human One.

      I have another question that is perhaps aimed in your direction. See below…

  3. You get at the problem I’ve always had when I’ve had people try to explain Barth to me: it sounds as if he tends to talk about the major Christological “events”–incarnation and esp. redemption–as almost a-historical happenings. These seem to have happened and continue to happen in eternity or in God or something and seem relatively unconnected to actual tangible creation and a historical person Jesus who got his feet dirty with real sand at a specific time in history. It’s as if it is enough for Jesus’ saving work and election to happen for our souls rather than our whole embodied, historical selves. (But then, I’m not reading along in CD, so perhaps there he clears it up.)

  4. I disagree with one minor point. I think Calvin’s go-to text for election was Romans 9-11, whereas for Barth it was Ephesians 1.

  5. Here’s a lingering question for me as I’ve gotten into the next section: is it faithful to the biblical witness to say that the Son elects? or is it the Father who elects for the sake of and in the Son?

    I tend toward the latter, but Barth makes much of the former.

    Does one have recourse to John’s “I chose you” statements at this point?

    Ephesians 1 would point in the direction of my preference: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ who has…” after which we get all the “in Him” language on which Barth draws for his predestination theology.

    Thoughts?

  6. Perhaps this question belongs more in another post you may right, but it seems to me that Barth believes that God has elected the entire human race in Jesus. I like that and actually think it could possibly fit Ephesians quite well since Paul is not actually arguing in terms of a dual destiny that separates one part of mankind from the other. While the subject of God’s election in Christ is restrictive to the Ephesian believers for the simple reason that Paul is addressing them and them only, it is not necessarily restrictive in its ultimate goal (though not mentioned here). The present status of election entered into by believers may well signal the larger eschatological horizon of God’s election. Though I’m not sure Paul has the upstaging of Caesar’s power, authority and saving rule over the world in mind in Ephesians, this contrasting background may come closer to Paul’s mind than our dual decree contrast that we normally import into the text. The objection to Barth is that he comes too close to universalism, but he denies that conclusion. In that case, God may elect, love and reach out to all humanity, yet some still may theoretically turn away from it in the end. Anyway, I’m probably going way beyond Daniel’s intentions in his post.

  7. If one man died for all, then all have died with him. All eternity and time are contained in christ, what ever he does affects humanity, thus being co-crucified co-burried and co-raised with Christ. Gods gift to the word is Christ. God so loved the world he gave his son that who so ever believes in him will not perish…I don’t know these are some things I have noticed. I think Jesus being the last Adam represents humanity and he is the elected one on behalf of humanity. Do you believe it?

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