All posts in “Election”

Eternal Blessedness for All? by Anette I. Hagan (Review)

Book: Eternal Blessedness for All?: A Historical-Systematic Examination of Schleiermacher’s Understanding of Predestination by Anette I. Hagan (Princeton Monograph Series) [AMAZON LINK]

Publisher: Pickwick Publications [PUBLISHER LINK]

Overview: Anette I. Hagan’s book is a careful and thorough examination of Schleiermacher’s doctrine of election. She focuses on all the relevant historical and systematic contexts shaping Schleiermacher’s thought, resulting in a thoughtfully constructed study well worth reading.

I’ve been diligently studying up on Schleiermacher’s theology over the last five months (in preparing to write the next book in my Plain English Series). It has been a surprising experience! His work is often caricatured poorly, especially by Barth. But in spite of my love for Barth, I have genuinely come to enjoy and appreciate Schleiermacher’s work. One of the many surprises I have discovered from reading Schleiermacher is his profound doctrine of election, the subject of Hagan’s excellent book.

Hagan’s book is a superb study which clarified and expanded my understanding (and appreciation) of Schleiermacher’s contribution. She masterfully outlines both the historical and systematic contexts in which he developed his understanding of election. The historical insights she offers were especially beneficial. Schleiermacher’s essay, On the Doctrine of Election, is brilliant, but without an understanding of these historical contexts, it was difficult to grasp all of its significant points. Hagan’s book is helpful in this regard, as she provides clarity to better understanding why Schleiermacher wrote this important essay and the specific goals he had in mind.

Hagan’s book also explores a number of systematic considerations from Schleiermacher’s theology which bears weight on the doctrine, such as the doctrine of creation. She also offers an insightful survey of the sermons Schleiermacher preached which were relevant to his doctrine. These provide further details to understanding Schleiermacher’s contribution.

All of these considerations bring into focus the significance of Schleiermacher’s doctrine of election.

One of the brilliant aspects of Schleiermacher’s understanding of election is his emphasis on God’s decree for all humanity rather than for individuals. This emphasis results in a fascinating argument for the universal redemption of all. Hagan offers a succinct summary:

In Schleiermacher’s interpretation of the doctrine, the reprobate are those who have so far been overlooked and are not yet affected by the Spirit. They do not cease to be incorporated into the shared religious life and remain objects of divine love, and they therefore do not lose the potential of being regenerated at some point in the future—even after death. Reprobation is compatible with God’s love precisely because the reprobate fulfill a necessary role within the historical unfolding and development of the human race as an integral part of God’s creation. Schleiermacher thus turns both the Lutheran and Calvinist traditions on their heads: the issue is not whether perdition is ordained, or foreseen and permitted, but whether it is a necessary or a contingent part of God’s decree. If it is a necessary part, it has to be consistent with divine love, and the only way to reconcile both notions is by interpreting reprobation as temporal rather than eternal. […]

By claiming that perdition is a necessary temporary stage to be overcome by the ultimate universal reconciliation and restoration of all that has been lost, Schleiermacher has solved the conflict between divine justice and divine love. ‘The difference at the point of death, then, between the person of faith and the person not of faith is simply the difference between being taken up into the reign of Christ earlier or later.’ [Schleiermacher: On The Doctrine of Election, 94] 1

Schleiermacher’s contribution strikes me as an aspect of his thought that is not taken seriously enough. Hagan’s book is a noteworthy study which would be indispensable to a complete study of Schleiermacher.

Overview: I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in Schleiermacher particularly, but also to those who are interested in the doctrine of election more generally. This book is a carefully written and exhaustively researched study of Schleiermacher, and as such, it is a great book for those interested in his work.

Click here to purchase your copy of Eternal Blessedness for All? by Anette I. Hagan

My thanks to Pickwick Publications and Wipf & Stock for a digital copy of this book for review. I was under no obligation to offer a positive review and have presented my honest reflections on the book.

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  1. Eternal Blessedness for All?, 116-7

Robert Jenson’s Alpha and Omega: a Review

Book: Alpha and Omega: A Study in the Theology of Karl Barth by Robert W. Jenson (Amazon link)

Publisher: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2002 (Publisher link)

Robert W. Jenson’s book, Alpha and Omega, is an excellently clear, and precise study in the theology of Karl Barth. Jenson asks how it is that the historical event of Jesus’ life might be the decisive reality of our present life, calling this question “the chief problem of modern theology.” (13) Jenson holds Barth’s theology up as a “grandiose and pioneering answer to this challenge [of modern theology].” (16)

With clarity and precision, Jenson examines some of the most difficult aspects of Barth’s thought, including Barth’s doctrine of nothingness, of creation, of election, of salvation, of history, of the incarnation, and of God. The overarching question behind these inquiries is the relationship between Jesus’ historical existence and our present lives, but along the way I found myself attending a masterclass in Barth’s doctrine of election, creation, and providence. I can’t recall reading anything nearly as erudite in secondary literature as Jenson’s presentation.

The three specific questions that Jenson asks of Barth’s theology are as follows. First, “To what end does God rule human history, and what is the course of the history of salvation?” Second, “In what sense does God have a history, and what is the relation between this history and ours? That is how does God guide human history?” Third, “What is the reality to which talk in the Church bears witness?” (17-8)

Of God’s plan for history and the mode of God’s rule in history, Jenson notes that these questions are, for Barth, never asked separately. For Barth, “The coming of Christ to sinners is absolutely determined from all eternity and is the purpose of all that happens.” And furthermore, “Christ’s life, as a movement of God’s eternal will, is itself the basis of its appearance in time.” (113) These for Barth are one of the same proposition, according to Jenson.

In other words, Jenson shows that for Barth, God’s plan for history and His rule in history are one and the same: the life of Jesus Christ. This event is the event of all history and existence, the plan God determined before creation. Jesus’ life is then, for Barth, the central event of all history and of creation. This is the core of Barth’s doctrine of election, that God determined Himself to be God for us in Jesus Christ, to be the God of sinners, to reconcile us to Himself.

The brilliance of this position is shown in how sharply it contrasts with other common presentations. Often the incarnation and salvation of Christ is portrayed as the reaction of God to human sin, placing God in a kind of “hail Mary” position in the face of evil. But Barth reverses the order. If Jesus Christ’s life is the epitome of all history, than this event precedes even the creation of the cosmos. The choice to reconcile human beings to Himself, to become man in Jesus Christ, is an eternal choice in the Triune life of God. Salvation wasn’t an afterthought, God’s coming to us in Jesus Christ was the basis for His act of creation. The difficulties in this position are apparent, but Jenson navigates them masterfully and with clarity.

To the final question, of the reality to which the church bears witness, Jenson turns to Barth’s inclusive Christology. Jenson writes of this reality: “We are what we are in Him. Our existence is ‘virtually accomplished’ in His. In that He has kept the covenant, we have kept the covenant. In that He has obeyed God, we have obeyed God. Our existence is enclosed in His from all eternity. … This history, the history of the man Jesus with God, is our real history.” (132-3)

This inclusive Christology is the reality the church proclaims. The reality of Jesus Christ, who is our obedience, our relationship with God—who is the covenant with God and all humanity—is the proclamation of the church. We proclaim: Look to Christ, here is your history, the basis for your existence as a human, this man with God is all mankind with God! “Our history is participation in Christ’s history.” (136) “Jesus Christ as God and man is the one great history of the eternal covenant between God and man[kind].” (139)

To conclude the book Jenson gives a helpful summary of Barth’s doctrine of election, followed by some final reflections on Barth’s theology. Jenson outlines many areas where he agrees with Barth, but he also offers some insightful criticisms.


This book was surprisingly easy to read, written with a clarity often absent from many studies of Barth’s theology. The precision of this study will be of tremendous value to any student of Barth’s thought. Jenson doesn’t dance around the difficult questions, but masterfully navigates through its many challenges. Instead of walking away confused by complex jargon and paradoxical images, I left this book with a better, clearer understanding of Barth’s thought. An excellent book, one I highly recommend.

My thanks to Wipf and Stock Publishers for a digital copy of this book for review. I was under no obligation to offer a positive review, and have presented my honest reflection on this work. 

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God Rejects TO Elect (Jacob, Esau, Romans 9, and Karl Barth)

barth-reading-retouched“Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” Paul writes this in Romans 9:13, and it has since been the cause for endless debate, especially in the protestant church. The most well known interpretation of this verse is the calvinist’s doctrine of “double-predestination”, in which God chose Jacob and rejected Esau. We therefore have these two categories: the elect and the reprobate, God’s chosen and God’s rejected individuals. The elect are those chosen by God from before all eternity to be His people, and the reprobate are chosen by God not to be His people.

Karl Barth, a reformed theologian often considered the most influential of the 20th century, has a different opinion about this. When I first read Barth it was because I had heard the rumor that he had developed a theology which explained election in a satisfactory way which retains at once God’s will to love all people and be for all people, and His sovereign grace. With this revision to election Barth offers an alternative to classic arminianism and calvinism alike.

Barth’s most magnificent treatment of election is in his famous Church Dogmatics volume II/2. This is where Barth takes a “christocentric” approach to the doctrine of election, which says that Jesus Christ is at once the electing God and the elected man. God says “yes” to Himself in Jesus Christ, and in Him God says “yes” to the human race. This is God’s self-determination to be, from before all time, God-for-us.

I’ve written about this doctrine elsewhere on my website 1, but today I want to share Barth’s comments on this verse which come from his famous The Epistle to the Romans. [LINK] Here Barth shows an early doctrine of election which he later forms more fully in CD II/2, but it is nonetheless a remarkable understanding of election. Barth writes:

“Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated. This—we again repeat it—is descriptive of the behaviour of God and of the quality of His action. Only as free, regal, sovereign, unbounded and incomprehensible, can we comprehend God and do Him honour. […] He makes Himself known in the parable and riddle of the beloved Jacob and the hated Esau, that is to say, in the secret of eternal, twofold predestination. Now, this secret concerns not this or that man, but all men. By it men are not divided, but united. In its presence they all stand on one line—for Jacob is always Esau also, and in the eternal ‘moment’ of revelation Esau is also Jacob. When the Reformers applied the doctrine of election and rejection (predestination) to the psychological unity of this or that individual, and then they referred quantitatively to the ‘elect’ and the ‘damned’, they were, as we can now see, speaking mythologically.2

And furthermore, Barth writes commenting on verse 14:

“Such a separation of men can only be allowed to appear, if it be at once broken down, and if by its immediate disappearance God be manifested as He is. For God is the God of Esau, because He is the God of Jacob. He is the creator of tribulation, because He is the bringer of help. He rejects, in order that He may elect.3

God rejects only because God elects; God rejects to elect. This is how Barth understands Paul’s usage of the story of Esau and Jacob. Barth rightly notes the mythological nature of predestination in the reformed theology, which focuses on the election or rejection of individuals. Barth will later understand this to be the concrete election of Jesus Christ, but even here he understands that the reformers were practicing mythological speculation when they formed their doctrine of double predestination.

Romans 11:32 says that “For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.” This seems to be what Barth has in mind here with rejection being for the sake of election. And in this sense we might say that rejection is temporal while election is eternal. God acts for the sake of election, and never in spite of election. Thus, the individuals God has given over to disobedience, to rejection, are given over for the sake of salvation, not for the sake of arbitrary or outright rejection.

Barth also seems to have in mind here the fact that God is the God of Jacob and Esau in the same way that God is the God of the old and the new creation. Barth seems to link, in the back of his thought, the sinner and the saint, the old and the new creation. Barth notes that this election and rejection is not an equilibrium, that is, it is not equally balanced. Instead, this is “the eternal victory of election over rejection.” 4 This victory of election over rejection is the victory of the new creation over the old, the resurrection of Jesus Christ in triumph over His death on the cross. This is how Barth speaks of human beings as both Jacob and Esau, because we are those who are “on the way” from death to life, from the old to the new creation in Him.

This is a fascinating look at Barth’s doctrine of election, though in an early form. Even here Barth brilliantly revises the doctrine of election, placing election properly (and rightly) at the center as God’s ultimate will for human beings. God is not the God both for and against individuals, God is the God who is for us, for all humanity!

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  1. See: What is Election? (A Summary) and 8 Incredible Karl Barth Quotes.
  2. The Epistle to the Romans, 347; emphasis mine.
  3. Ibid. 351; emphasis mine.
  4. Ibid. 347

Double Predestination is Unbiblical (Emil Brunner)

53cd01af4e1d2_emil_brunnerToday I finished reading Emil Brunner’s Dogmatics: Volume I, The Christian Doctrine of God. 1 There are many positive things I could say about the volume, and I did enjoy much of Brunner’s emphasis upon the revelation of God in Jesus Christ (though there were also many things I disliked).

Brunner, with Barth, fiercely rejects natural theology, though, as I mentioned in a previous post, he still retains a “revelation in nature” where Barth does not. And the disagreements do not stop here. Barth and Brunner are similar in their dedication to the word of God in Jesus Christ, but the way they each work out that revelation into theology is very different. Brunner takes issue with Barth on many things, for example Barth’s doctrine of election which Brunner feels is far too close to universalism. 2

But Barth and Brunner’s differences aside, what I found especially interesting in the last section was Brunner’s treatment of election. He rejects Barth’s doctrine of election, but he also rejects Calvin’s double decree. This rejection of double predestination is something I really enjoyed (probably the highlight of the book for me), even if I think his rejection of Barth’s doctrine of election is mistaken.

Brunner does an excellent job showing here that the doctrine of double predestination it not a scriptural doctrine. In the theology of Zwingli especially, Brunner argues that the doctrine of predestination is a philosophical doctrine and not a biblical or theological one. It is based not on revelation, therefore, but is a  kind of natural theology which works on philosophical terms!

Writing of Zwingli’s doctrine of double predestination, which Brunner distinguishes from Calvin’s doctrine as the least biblical of the two, he writes, “All this has nothing, nothing whatever, to do with Christian theology, but it is a rational metaphysic, partly stoic in character, and partly Neo-Platonist…” 3

Double predestination is a philosophical doctrine, a kind of speculation into the will of God. For this reason it is a form of natural theology—reading back into God what we perceive in mankind. This critique of double predestination is crushing, I believe, but Brunner does not stop there. He also presents a profound analysis of the scriptures showing how the doctrine of double predestination is unbiblical. For this I’ll quote Brunner extensively with a few comments in between. Enjoy!

Double Predestination: Unbiblical

Brunner writes,

The Bible does not contain the doctrine of double predestination, although in a few isolated passages it seems to come close to it. The Bible teaches that all salvation is based upon the eternal Election of God in Jesus Christ, and that this eternal Election springs wholly and entirely from God’s sovereign freedom. But wherever this happens, there is no mention of a decree of rejection. The Bible teaches that alongside of the elect there are those who are not elect, who are ‘reprobate’, and indeed that the former are the minority and the latter the majority; but in these passages the point at issue is not eternal election but ‘separation’ or ‘selection’ in Judgment. Thus the Bible teaches that there will be a double outcome of world history, salvation and ruin, Heaven and Hell. But while salvation is explicitly taught as derived from the eternal Election, the further conclusion is not drawn that destruction is also based upon a corresponding decree of doom.4

Essentially, Bruner argues here that while the scriptures do include an element of “reprobation” or “non-election”, these are not eternal decrees like election. Election may be eternal, but non-election is not, according to the scriptures. God did not eternally reject some and include others, according to Brunner, God elected from eternity but He did not reject from eternity. Brunner continues to bring out this point in terms of Israel’s history.

“The Bible teaches, it is true, that God is also at work in evil and in sin where men harden their hearts and betray the Highest; but this ‘working’ is not ascribed to an eternal decree, and the ‘hardening of heart’—particularly in the decisive case of Israel—is not conceived as irrevocable. Israel, which at present is hardened and therefore rejected, can—and indeed will—still be saved if it does not remain in a state of disobedience. The Bible teaches that Judas commits his act of treachery in order ‘that the scripture should be fulfilled’, but it does not say that this is the result of an eternal decree.5

Rejection, for Brunner, is not a part of the eternal Divine decree, only election is. But rejection is still at play, if only in a temporary sense. From this Brunner turns to the chief scripture often used, Romans 9-11. Brunner rightly points out that the context here is not the election of the individual, but the election of Israel. He writes,

“The Ninth chapter of the Epistle to the Romans is usually regarded as the ‘locus classicus’ of the doctrine of a double predestination, and for this reason it requires very careful consideration. Hence it is extremely important to show very clearly the connexion of this chapter with the two which follow. They do not deal with the salvation and damnation of the individual, but with the destiny of Israel. Thus the point of view itself is entirely different from that of the doctrine of predestination.” 6

Following this Brunner points out three points of misunderstanding that are often at work in those who interpret Romans 9 for proof of double predestination. He writes,

“(a) As in the whole context, so also in the example of Jacob and Esau, in the movement of thought of the Apostle Paul, this is not an argument in support of a ‘double decree’, but it is an illustration of the freedom of God in His action in the history of salvation. When we read: ‘For the children being not yet born, neither, having done anything good or bad, that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works but of Him that calleth …’ this does not refer to a double ‘decretum’, but to the freedom of the divine election. Here there is no question of the eternal salvation of Jacob and the eternal doom of Esau; the point is simply the part which each plays in the history of redemption. Paul wishes to show that God chooses the instruments of His redemptive action, the bearers of the history of the Covenant, as He wills. The theme of this passage is not the doctrine of predestination, but the sovereign operation of God in History, who has been pleased to reveal Himself at one particular point in History, in Israel.

“(b) Likewise in the following verses Pharaoh is simply an historic redemptive instrument in the hand of God, that instrument which, through its ‘hardening’, must serve God’s purpose. There is no question here of his salvation or condemnation. All the argument is concentrated on one point: God has mercy on whom He will, and hardens whom He will. The point of the whole is the freedom of grace.

“(c) Finally, we come to the critical main passage, verses 19-22, the point in the whole Bible which comes closest to a doctrine of a double decree—and yet is separated from it by a great gulf. The parable of the potter and the clay, taken from Isaiah 28: 16 and Jeremiah 18: 6, expresses the absolute right of God to dispose of His creature as He chooses. The creature has no right to claim anything over against God; He may do with it what He wills. He does not have to account for His actions to anyone. God is the Lord, and His authority knows no limits.

“…The passage does not say that they have been created as vessels of wrath, still less that from all eternity they have been destined for this, but that, on account of their unbelief, they are ‘fitted unto destruction.’

“In any case, the ‘vessels of wrath’ mentioned in this passage are not the ‘reprobi’ of the doctrine of Predestination. Here, indeed, there is no mention of individuals as individuals at all, but the whole People of Israel is being discussed, and the point is not that the ‘People’ as a whole will be lost eternally, but that now, for the moment, they play a negative part in the history of salvation, which, in the future, after they have been converted, will become a positive one. The final issue of the judgment of wrath will be their salvation. Here, again, we notice that there is a remarkable ‘incongruity’ between those ‘on the left hand’ and those ‘on the right’, as in Matthew 25. The ‘vessels of wrath’ are designated by an impersonal passive, they are ‘ripe for destruction’. Thus it is explicitly stated that it is not God who has made them what they are. The linguistic phrase is deliberately in the passive, denoting a present condition, and can equally well be translated ‘ripe for condemnation’. Over against them stand the ‘vessels of mercy’ whom God ‘hath afore prepared unto glory’. In the first case no active subject, and no indication of an act of predetermination; in the second instance, an active Subject, God, and a clear indication of eternal election. Thus even in this apparently clearly ‘predestinarian’ passage there is no suggestion of a double decree!7

Here in Romans 9 along with both the Old and New Testaments, there is absolutely no trace of the doctrine of God’s double decree! God’s election may be eternal, but God’s rejection cannot be, according to the witness of scripture.


There are some problems I have with Brunner’s doctrine of election, but here he presents an important insight into the Calvinist doctrine of double predestination: it simply is not a biblical doctrine!

I am part of several “reformed” groups on Facebook, and I am always frustrated to see how the Calvinists in them think that the bible is filled with this double decree. But it’s not! Instead, to prove this doctrine, a Calvinists must take their philosophical notion of God’s omnipotent decree, and they must inject it into the scriptures, ignoring context, thinking they’ve “proven” their doctrine. But here Brunner shows quite well how wrong they are. The bible simply does not contain a doctrine of double predestination, as it is found in the reformed tradition. There is a biblical doctrine of election, but there is not a biblical doctrine of eternal reprobation! Calvinists would do well to read Brunner’s critique in full context (it’s free online), or better yet, to read Barth’s brilliant doctrine of election in CD II/2! 8 I don’t think Brunner is completely right about his doctrine of election, but I do think his critique of double predestination as an unbiblical doctrine is spot on. Although, for a positive work on election, please refer to Karl Barth!

I hope you enjoyed these quotes from Brunner. Let me know in a comment what you think of his critique. Is he right in his assessment of Romans 9 and the doctrine of double predestination?

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  1. Digital files for this volume and volume II are freely available on
  2. For more on Barth and universalism see this article.
  3. p. 323
  4. pp. 326-7
  5. p. 327
  6. p. 328
  7. pp.329-330
  8. I’ve written some on this here and here.

What is Election? (A Summary)

41xcwy26YhL._SX325_BO1,204,203,200_Anyone studying theology will eventually come across the perplexing problem of predestination. Is Calvin correct about God’s double-decree? Or is the Arminian approach correct? Do we choose God or does God choose us?

This was the first reason why I ever read Karl Barth. I had learned, through reading Thomas Torrance and C. Baxter Kruger, that Barth had written a new, revolutionary way to understand election.

But Barth can often be difficult to read. For the everyday Christian its challenging, nearly impossible for some, to pick up his large volumes filled with daunting paragraphs of dense theology. Is there any easier way to understand his doctrine of election?

Thankfully yes!

Barth Summarizing Election

Barth summarizes his doctrine of Election in several places, but one of the best I’ve come across was just recently while reading Deliverance to the CaptivesThe book is a collection of eighteen sermons Barth preached to prisoners in Basel, Switzerland. It’s a brilliant book, and a great example of Barth preaching the heart of the Church Dogmatics in a simple manner. As such, he talks about election in a way that is simple to understand, but backed by volume upon volume of brilliant theology.

In a sermon titled “Teach us to Number our Days” Barth gives this summary of election:

What happened in the death of Jesus did not happen against us, but for us. What took place was not an act of God’s wrath against man. Quite the opposite holds true. Because in the one Jesus God so loved us from all eternity—truly all of us—because He has elected Himself to be our dear Father and has elected us to become His dear children whom He wants to save and to draw unto Him, therefore He has in the one Jesus written off, rejected, nailed to a cross and killed our old man who, as impressively as he may dwell and spook about in us, is not our true self. God so acted for our own sake.

…The old man has already been extinguished in the death of Jesus, because you may no longer be this old man, because your own case has been disposed of by the power of Jesus’ death, therefore you yourself are now the new man, loved by God, chosen, saved and accepted by Him who has said to you and will say to you His divine “yes”. 1

Four Points

We could break this up into four points.

  1. God elected first Himself to be our God in Christ, to be not just a God in the abstract, out there somewhere, but to be the God of mankind. He has chosen not to be only God alone in Himself, but to be God for us. 
  2. He eternally elected to be our Father. And therefore, in electing Himself, from all time He elected mankind in Jesus Christ, His Son, to be His adopted children. In electing Himself as Father, we are elected to become His children.
  3. Jesus was excluded and rejected so that we might be included and accepted. Only(!) Jesus was rejected, and no one ever will be rejected as a result.
  4. The old man is crucified and gone, taken away in Jesus’ death. We are free, included, saved, and healed in Christ.

These four points lead to the following conclusions. First, that God has chosen all people in His Son Jesus. Therefore no one is excluded from all eternity (compare this with Calvin’s horrible decree). Though this does not mean God takes sin lightly, and rejects no one. Instead, Jesus Christ, God and man, has taken up our cause, shouldered our responsibility, and undone our corruption in His death. He is the rejected man. God excluded Himself in order to include all people. None are excluded!

This contrasts starkly against Calvinism and Arminianism alike. For me, this solves the dilemma. We can now say that God is 100% for the human race, for each and every single person on the planet. He has no hidden decree about mankind, but has spoken a clear word in Jesus Christ, a “yes!” to mankind. It also means that we can affirm the grace of God in election, that we do not save ourselves but God saves single-handedly.

This, in simple terms, is what Barth has done with the doctrine of election. Barth places the central question back on Jesus Christ as both the electing God and the elected man. Election is about Him, and about us in Him.

For more on the doctrine of election see these quote from CD II.2. Also see my book We Belong: Trinitarian Good Newschapter one.

I recommend this book of sermons to anyone daunted by Barth’s reputation, but interested in hearing from how he presents the gospel. (Amazon link)

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  1. P. 122-3

Karl Barth on Romans 9:20

Karl_Barth_BriefmarkeSo then He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires. You will say to me then, “Why does He still find fault? For who resists His will?” On the contrary, who are you, O man, who answers back to God? The thing molded will not say to the molder, “Why did you make me like this,” will it? 

(Romans 9:18-20 NASB)

Romans 9-11 is one of the most debated passages of scripture. On one side, the Calvinist will see absolute proof in these passages for their doctrine of predestination. But Karl Barth, in his incredible Church Dogmatics II/2 provides a running exegesis of this passage. As I was reading this today, I came across a beautiful summing up of what makes Barth’s understanding of predestination so brilliant—that of bringing the discussion back to Jesus Christ alone. Here he comments on the question Paul poses in verse 19 and the counter-question in verse 20.

But it is not in respect of an indeterminate power of God that Paul’s counter-question puts man in his place. This would only give fresh vigor and a new pretext for the question of v. 19. On the contrary, the “power” of God in His dealing with man, in face of which it becomes man to be humbled, is something wholly determinate; it is settled by the determined purpose on which God has decided with respect to man in Jesus Christ. The tenor of the answer hidden in the counter-question of v. 20 is: “in any case, whether you are a friend of God like Moses or an enemy like Pharaoh, whether your name is Isaac or Ishmael, Jacob or Esau, you are the man on account of whose sin and for whose sin Jesus Christ has died on the cross for the justification of God, and for whose salvation and bliss, and for whose justification, He has been raised from the dead. ” (Rom. 4:35). 

Essential, Karl Barth has taken this question in Romans 9:20, which is commonly understood as the indeterminate power of God which “puts man in his place”, and He has made it particular in the person of Jesus Christ who has suffered and died for the sake of all mankind. It is this determined purpose of God, God’s decision about mankind in Jesus Christ, God’s free-election of man in Jesus Christ, that Paul is answering the first question with His counter-question. And this is why Karl Barth’s doctrine of election is an improvement over that of the Calvinist understanding. He succeeds to bring back election as an event “in Christ”, not as an abstract happening apart from Jesus Christ. (See Eph 1:5-6) It’s essential to see that Paul has this context in mind as he writes Romans 9-11.

Election and Reprobation

CopyA few weeks ago I finished reading Karl Barth’s Göttingen Dogmatics, an earlier attempt at dogmatics which precedes the Church Dogmatics. In this volume I came away with many great insights, but one in particular has stuck with me in my thinking, that is, Karl Barth’s doctrine of Election and Reprobation. Prior to reading this volume I had a general concept of what Barth’s doctrine of predestination was, but this added more depth to what I understood. I’ve not yet read CD II where Barth deals with election exhaustively, and have only read bits and pieces of his doctrine in other works. This was then my first real introduction to that which lead me to Barth in the first place.

I started reading Karl Barth for two reasons. First, because I have a great amount of love for the theology of T.F. Torrance, who was a student and close friend of Barth. Second, and perhaps most of all, because of an interest in Barth’s doctrine of election which offered a theological alternative to both the harshness of Calvinism and the semi-pelagian-like beliefs of Arminianism (which was my background growing up). So today I wanted to share some of my thoughts on this. I’ll present these thoughts in what I feel are three important shifts in the thinking of Barth which will help you understand what election and reprobation means.

1. Jesus IS election

The brilliance of Barth’s theology is his christocentric approach. He is fully focused on Jesus Christ as the Word of God and the source of revelation. Barth was therefore very much against any notion of a God behind the back of Jesus Christ. Instead, Jesus Christ is the one in whom all theology must correspond to. We cannot do theology behind the back of Jesus Christ, we must think out our concepts about God only in the light of Jesus Christ.

This is true especially for election. Election is not a doctrine found in Romans 9, nor is it exclusively Pauline. The doctrine of election is centered around Jesus Christ the Son of God. John Calvin wrote that Jesus is the “mirror of election”. Barth Himself then writes, “Who is elect? Not the individual… Christ, that is, Christ …as the Head and Redeemer of the church.” 1 Therefore, for Barth, the important truth about Election is that it is not a doctrine abstracted from Jesus Christ, but rather found in Jesus Christ. Jesus is election.

2. Reprobation is for the sake of election (and therefore not eternal)

Another important aspect of Election is one that I had not heard from Barth before, but that has since caused me much joy in meditating upon it. In the light of Jesus Christ we cannot now say that there is no reprobation, to say so is to misunderstand Barth. His doctrine does not do away with the reprobate altogether. Instead, Barth refocuses reprobation in the light of Christ.

Reprobation, for Barth, is not an eternal decree in God. Only election is eternally in God. Therefore, reprobation is only rejection temporarily, for the sake of election. “Its point (predestination) and goal are always election, not rejection, even in rejection.” 2 “God alone is the cause of election” 3 And therefore, “In Him we know predestination primarily as election” 4 The reprobate are therefore not eternally damned by God, but only for the sake of eventual election. This is true in the wrath of God too. God has wrath only for the sake of healing our humanity. Wrath and reprobation do not exist for the sake of either, instead, they are in God for the sake of His love and dedication to the human race.

3. Election is not about individuals, but about God

As already quoted, for Barth, “God alone is the cause of election.” This means that election is not centered in the individual, but in God. If this is true, then predestination is not about God choosing individuals, one over another, but about God choosing all people in His Son Jesus Christ. “Who is elect? Not the individual…”

Predestination must move away from thinking through election and reprobation in terms of “certain people” but only in terms of Jesus Christ as the mirror of our election. Predestination for Barth is not about God choosing some over others, but of God choosing Jesus Christ and the human race in Him. This shift is important and has huge ramifications in theology, specifically in soteriology and the nature of God. This frees up the cross to be for all people, as scripture tells us, instead of only some within Calvinism. This also makes God not a harsh God who chooses some over another, but a God who loves all people. 

What do you think about Barth’s doctrine of Election and Reprobation? Is it an improvement on that of Calvin? Why or why not? Let me know in a comment!

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  1. Göttingen Dogmatics, P. 463
  2. ibid p.460
  3. ibid. p.461
  4. ibid. p.471