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.

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