A 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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