Does the Son Elect?

(And other pressing concerns generated by Church Dogmatics §33.2)

Question 1: Is it faithful to Scripture to say that the Son, Jesus Christ, elects, such that in the God-man the one who elects and the one who is elected are one?

Or, is it more faithful to scripture to say that the one who elects is, properly, God the Father, who makes known to the Son that the Son has been elected for a certain task?

Barth’s whole program, as he presents it, hangs on Christ being both the subject and object of predestination.

I like the idea, but I’m not sure it’s how the NT presents God’s election. It’s all well and good for us, in our more developed Trinitarian Theology, to think “Father, Son, and Spirit” when we think “God.” However, this is not what the NT writers were thinking. For them, when they say “God” they mean the one to whom we refer to as “Father.”

More specifically, when election is assigned to a person, it is most often the Father (e.g., 1 Peter 1:1-2) rather than the Son; unless, that is, the Son is seen as agent of electing those (not himself!) whom the Father has chosen.

Barth Elects to say Yes to God Via His Pipe

Indeed, Ephesians 1 itself, the great “in Christ” celebration that provides the clearest indication that Jesus Christ is the one through whom any others are seen when they are elect, places the whole in the provenance of the Father:

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us… Just as he (i.e., the Father!) chose us in him (i.e., the Son), before the foundation of the cosmos… Having predestined us (i.e., the same Father predestines as chooses and blesses) to adoption through Jesus Christ…”

I don’t think that John 1:1, “the Word was God,” provides the kind of leverage Barth demands of it to assign to the son what is clearly assigned to the Father throughout scripture.

Or, to put a different spin on it, when KB says that the son’s suffering is something Jesus speaks of “not as a necessity laid upon Him from without, but as something which He Himself wills,” I wonder what Bible he’s reading. The Son wills it as the will of the Father placed upon him.

I do not think, however, that this is as fatal to Barth’s project as he would lead us to believe. Jesus Christ can still be the primary object of election, focusing the choosing of God on the Son who as Elected One responds faithfully in electing God as well, and much of what Barth wants to maintain is upheld.

Question 2: If Barth wants the election of Jesus Christ to be the sum substance of election, such that all of us can look to Christ and take confidence in our standing before God–has he not cut off any defense he might have had against a charge of universalism?

If not every single person can so look to Christ and be comforted, then election cannot serve this purpose, which Barth says it surely has. I know, I’m not saying anything new here. And I’m happy for KB to be a Universalist based on the capacious nature of Christ’s work on our behalf.

Question 3: is it really all potential loss for God and all potential gain for humanity that God would choose to become incarnate, to become a man who must elect God in order for humanity to be truly God’s people?

I get this idea: we suck, God is awesome, God takes care of our suckiness, but at the possible expense of some of his awesomeness.

However, what if God really loves people?

What if God, creating people in his own image and likeness loves us in the same way that, say, Adam loved Seth–one born in his own image and likeness.

In other words, what if being in the image of God means that we are God’s children and therefore beloved of him, and God has something magnificent to gain from this whole business–a beloved, faithful, loving family?

I love how Barth is moving away from double-predestination (although, again, I think a revisionist hermeneutic is involved here) and creating a doctrine that is radically christological in its focus. I think that much of this is a salutary corrective to predestinarian thinking.

But more work is going to have to be done if this is going to be a revision that stands up to biblical scrutiny.

20 thoughts on “Does the Son Elect?”

  1. Very interesting ideas. When we say “know God” – I think a lot of people think of “God, the Father.” But, if we are to really “Know God” – wouldn’t it be important to say, “we must know the Father, Son and Holy Spirit?”

    On the third question – which I think needs to be explored more as you intimate – where does the concept of “Children of Wrath” come into play?

  2. Have you checked out Suzanne MacDonald’s “Reimagining Election”? Well worth the read as she adapts Barth’ view from another angle than you have suggested and made it an even stronger “sum” of the gospel!


  3. I tend to resist the notion that the imago Dei makes us God’s children. It’s pretty clear in Paul at least that it isn’t creation, but adoption, that makes us children of God. But I’m with you as far as God being motivated by love. This is a spot where Luther didn’t get far enough in his pursuit of a gracious God, and it seems like Barth simply recapitulates the “happy exchange,” now traditional. Besides which, classically, love is a pathos and God cannot therefore be moved by love—even though God is love. And yet, if we have a motive for God’s act for the creature (and especially the total creature, the creation), it is that God hates nothing God has made.

  4. But what about passages like John 13:18 and 15:16, 19 where Jesus testifies of himself as the one who has chosen his disciples? Does the Son elect? The fourth Gospel says “yes.”

    1. Alan, I was wondering about those. In ch. 17:6 Jesus prays, “They were yours and you have given them to me…” It made me think that the son’s “electing” of the 12 was derivative of the Father’s. Thoughts?

      1. The prayer is quite interesting, to say the least! In it Jesus goes on to say “All mine are yours, and yours are mine…” In one of the small print sections of II.2 Barth says of the Father-Son passages in John’s Gospel “In the light of these passages the electing of the disciples ascribed to Jesus must be understood not merely as a function undertaken by Him in an instrumental and representative capacity, but rather as an act of divine sovereignty, in which there is seen a particular way the primal and basic decision of God which is also that of Jesus Christ.” I would have to agree with Barth on this matter as the Gospel of John, while not collapsing together the Father and the Son, nevertheless will not permit any gap between them either–”Believe in God and believe also in me.”

  5. Daniel, doesn’t Galatians 2 provide a view of Christ having given himself up to death out of love of us?

    “And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

    1. Yes, the Son does give himself up (depending on what we’re reading!). But the larger biblical (and Pauline) framework seems to be that he does so in obedience/submission to the Father. So it’s the father’s will / “compulsion” that leads to the son’s self-giving.

  6. Some great questions here, but, re. Q. 1, Barth’s starting point is not the doctrine of the Trinity in its 4th century formulation, but the doctrine of Jesus as the revelation in its NT perspective. Fuller comment on my blog (if it’s okay to do that here).

  7. Daniel, you’ve asked some intriguing questions here. Barth, of course, forsees much of this — so first I wonder how satisfied you might be with his small-print sections throughout CD II/2 (and this paragraph in particular).

    Q1. Barth is pressing Paul’s “in” and “through” language with respect to Christ to do more heavy-lifting than those prepositions usually do. Rather than being an instrument or vehicle for the realization of the Father’s will, the Son participates in that will and activity.

    With regard to the will of God, we might observe the later trinitarian principle that there is one divine will, not three. The will of the Son is not only the same as the will of the Father; it is the will of the Father. The agency itself is held in common, since God is One. (Cf. Maximus the Confessor and John of Damascus)

    With regard to the activity of God, Christ stands not at a mid-point between God (the agent) and creation (where God’s activity is actualized). Rather he stands on the side of God — not cooperating with the Father as a participatory agent, but co-acting with the Father and the Spirit as the One God. The triune persons are distinct in appropriations, but not in willing. (And it seems to me that eternal election is inherently an act of willing.)

    In short: I would only find the suggestion that Jesus Christ is the subject of election to be problematic if I were a social trinitarian.

    Q2. I suspect that many who are confused by the fact that Barth appears inevitably universalist but refuses to claim it make the mistake of imposing the familiar system of evangelical Protestant soteriology onto him. ‘Election’ and ‘predestination’ in a Calvinist context seem to lead invariably to what we call ‘salvation’ (indeed, it is the ultimate cause of one’s salvation). For Barth to say that all are elect in Christ, then, seems to indicate that all are ‘saved.’

    But what if Barth does not presume this connection? What if, as he suggests, it is possible for one who is ‘elect’ in Christ to deny the state of her existence and live as though she were not? What would the real consequence of embracing this “impossible possibility” be? Therein, I think, lies the rub of Barth’s position on univeralism.

    Q3. I’m not sure if this question is based on a statement from Barth. I’d say that there is no “loss” for God. Barth says elsewhere that for God to do this — to humble Himself in the incarnation, to reconcile creatures to Himself, to choose to be “God for us” and not to be God in any other way — is not counter to who God is but is its actual expression. God is the One who loves in freedom, and He is free to love us in this way. Thus is does not make Him less but more, a God who is exalted not in spite of His condescension but precisely in it.

  8. I think Darren is right. The reason the electing Jesus seems problematic to many is because we have been inundated with social trinitarianism, where we think of God not as one acting subject, but as three subjects who cooperate. This is precisely why Barth chose “mode” instead of “person” because when we use the word, “person” we can’t help ourselves from thinking of different agents. If God is one acting subject, then Jesus must be the electing God and elected man. How could it be otherwise?

    But the bigger question is, does this doctrine of the Trinity accurately reflect the testimony of scripture? Daniel, you asked what Bible KB was reading. This is a huge statement and suggests it’s clear that Jesus’ suffering is the will of an outside agent to whom Jesus simply submits. It’s hard for me to see how this way of thinking about Jesus doesn’t imply that either Jesus is not divine or that there are 2 gods. Now, of course Jesus does submit to the will of the Father. But for Barth, the Father is not an outside agent, for they are the same agent in different modes of being. Jesus’ mode as God submits and obeys and is one with the Father who commands. They are the same agent. Otherwise we have 2 gods.

    All of this is in nuce in II/2 but becomes clarified in IV/1, §59, “If, then, God is in Christ, if what the man Jesus does is God’s own work, this aspect of self-emptying and self-humbling of Jesus Christ as an act of obedience cannot be alien to God” (193). And again, “His divine unity consists in the fact that in Himself He is both One who is obeyed and Another who obeys” (201). Jesus is not simply an instrument in the hands of a separate agent but is the true God himself, the God who both commands and obeys as John 10:18 seems to indicate. Without a unified agency in election, how is the atonement not divine child abuse?

  9. Also, I don’t understand your statement, “I get this idea: we suck, God is awesome, God takes care of our suckiness, but at the possible expense of some of his awesomeness. However, what if God really loves people?” Your question implies that for Barth God doesn’t really love people, which is a gross misunderstanding. In fact I would say that Barth’s doctrine of election actually secures the fact that God really does love people precisely because his most primal decision (behind which we have no other knowledge of God) is his decision to be God for us and our brother in Jesus. “In Jesus Christ God in His free grace determines Himself for sinful man and sinful man for Himself” (II/2, §33). God loves people so much that he determines his own divine life precisely for humanity, that he might never be God-without-us. What could be more loving than that? God before any other decision decides to be God-for-us and God-with-us, at whatever cost that will entail to himself. What could be more loving?

    1. Be careful about pinning too much of your assessment of someone’s writing on what you think they seem to be implying. You’ve responded well–but to an objection of your own making!

  10. I’m certainly not trying to distort what you are saying. You said that you aren’t sure what Bible KB is reading when he says Jesus’ suffering is “not as a necessity laid upon Him from without, but as something which He Himself wills.” I suggested that John 10:18 indicates agency in his submission. I think Philippians 2: 6-11 also has Jesus Christ as the divine subject of election, not merely the object. Even Mark 10:45 has Jesus as an active subject. Of course KB thinks John 1:1 and following indicates that the election to be God-for-us in Jesus Christ is the God’s self-determination behind which we can know nothing of God.

    There are certainly other scriptures to point to, but these 4 have Jesus in the role of subject. This is why I don’t think you can dismiss the idea that Jesus is the electing God. Do you think my exegesis is off here? And if Jesus is not the electing God, I really would like to know how to avoid the charge of divine child abuse. There may be a way. I just don’t know what it is. If Jesus is the subject of election, such a charge clearly holds no weight. And if Jesus is not the subject of election, it’s fair to ask, how can he really be God, is it not?

    My second post was also not trying to answer an objection of my own making, but I may have misunderstood your point. When you asked the question, “what if God really loves people?” I (apparently wrongly) assumed this question was somehow critiquing the subject at hand: Barth’s doctrine of election. My point is that Barth’s doctrine of election secures an affirmation of God’s love for people like nothing else I’ve read. God loves people so much that his whole being is freely determined to love us, as seen in the election of Jesus Christ.

    As for your other question, “What if God, creating people in his own image and likeness loves us in the same way that, say, Adam loved Seth–one born in his own image and likeness.” I think Barth would say that the problem with this question is that it is open to Feuerbach’s charge that our theology is merely the projection of our wants and desires into the infinite: “Adam is a father and loves Seth–what if there’s a God out there who does the same for all of us?” For Barth the better way to ask that question would be to say, “What if God, creating people in his own image and likeness loves us in the same way that the Father loves the Son as witnessed in Jesus’ baptism?” This kind of love is not one that we could ever imagine on our own and project it into infinity. This kind of love could only be revealed to us, which is precisely what has happened in Jesus.

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