No doubt, Karl Barth is one of the best known and most famous theologians of modern times.
But at the same time, it may be said that he is one of the strangest figures in the theological world. On the one hand, he is lauded and accepted by both orthodox and modern theologians and “church people” of the present time; on the other hand, he is condemned by both moderns and orthodox.
How can this be explained?
Is it perhaps true that Barth is intentionally vague so that he can be explained either this way or that, in favor of modern and orthodox theology? Does he purposely speak out of “both sides of his mouth”?
In a panel discussion at the Rockefeller chapel as it was reported in one of the Chicago papers, the question was asked Barth how he would justify his “appeal to Scripture as the objective Word of God with his admission that Scripture is sullied by errors, theological as well as historical.” Barth answered: “The Bible has proven and will continue to prove itself as the true and fitting instrument to point men to God. The Bible, being a human instrument, is bound by the temporal use of nature, history and ideas. Just so far, the Bible is not sinless, like Jesus Christ himself and not infallible like God. No wonder that even from the viewpoint of world views and concepts of other ages the question may arise whether or not we have problems of certain tensions, contradictions, and, if you prefer the term, ‘errors’.”
Did Barth answer the question that was asked him? He did not. It is true that he admitted, after many words that really had nothing to do with the question, that there are errors in Scripture “if you prefer the term.” But this was not the question. The question was “how he would justify his appeal to Scripture as the objective Word of God with his admission that Scripture was sullied by errors, theological as well as historical.” And this question he certainly did not answer. He avoided and camouflaged it.
Barth certainly quotes frequently from the Bible, especially also in his “Die Kirchliche Dogmatik.” But the question is: how can he possibly do this? Who, if the Bible is not infallible and if there are errors in Scripture, is going to determine what is truth and what is error? According to what principle can anyone do this? This was the question which Barth was supposed to have answered. And this he certainly did not do.
But my subject, for the present, is not Barth’s view of the infallibility of the Word of God as revealed in Scripture, but rather his conception of election and reprobation.
I certainly would have liked to have heard him lecture on that subject. And I am convinced, too, that no Reformed theologian, or, for that matter, Reformed man or woman that is acquainted with this truth as revealed in the Bible, can possibly agree with Barth.
He, indeed, uses many words and writes very elaborately on this subject. In fact, in the second volume of “Die Kirchlithe Dogmatik” he devotes more than five hundred pages, much of it in small print, to this subject alone. And, I am sorry to say, he seems to struggle with many words to cover up his real meaning.
On this subject, then, I wish to devote a few articles. And first of all, I will give an outline of what Barth writes on this subject and also a few definitions. The translation as well as some paraphrasing is mine. I know that much of Barth’s Dogmatics has already been translated into English, but this translation I do not have, and since by far most of our readers cannot read German, I will either translate or paraphrase.
Barth offers the following definition of election:
“The doctrine of election is the sum (Summe) of the gospel, while it is the very best that can ever be said or heard: that God elects man and thus is also for him the one that loves freely (der in Freiheit Liebende). It is grounded in the knowledge of Jesus Christ, because He is the electing God and the elected man all in one. It belongs therefore to the doctrine of God, since God chooses man, and destines him, not only over him, but in an original manner over Himself. Its function consists in the foundation-laying matter of the eternal, free and permanent grace as the beginning of all the ways and works of God.”
This is a rather heavy definition.
We may notice also that the definition concerns, not predestination, but only election. And in the explanation of this definition in pages 1 to 100, it already becomes evident that Barth, I will not say as yet, denies reprobation, but does not like it. Later we must say more about this.
In three chapters Barth explains his definition of the doctrine of election. First he speaks of the direction of the doctrine of election. Briefly we may say that the doctrine of election is directed to the revelation of God’s love, and that, too, of God’s merciful love (barmherzige Liebe) in Christ Jesus. Secondly, Barth has a chapter on the ground (Begriindung) of the doctrine of election. In response to the question: from where comes the doctrine of predestination, Barth answers, first that it cannot rest on tradition, not even on the tradition of the Church. Secondly, this doctrine cannot rest on its usefulness. And, thirdly, and emphatically, it cannot be based on experience. The result of such prepossessed and predetermined experience, according to Barth, is that one approaches Scripture with all this experience in mind and, instead of letting Scripture speak for itself,” he injects his own experience-philosophy into the Bible and thus comes to the conclusion there are “both elect and reprobate of God.”
Still another possibility as the ground of election (and reprobation) Barth denies. It is the theory that makes the almighty power of God and His determinate foreknowledge the ground of election and reprobation. It is God, and not a blind fate or chance that elects or rejects.
Of course, Barth writes much more under this head, but we cannot go into this now. Even what he writes about the Remonstrants of the seventeenth century and about the Synod of Dordrecht, though it is very interesting, we must pass by for the time being. The same is true of what he writes about the Lutheran conception of predestination.
And as far as the question concerning the ground of the doctrine of election is concerned, we may briefly state that it must be found in the self-revelation of God as expressed in the Scriptures, the self-revelation of God in Christ Jesus, Who is, both the electing God and the elect Man.
In the third chapter in explanation of Barth’s definition of election Barth speaks of the place of the doctrine of election in dogmatics. We can afford to be brief here. According to Barth, the Reformed fathers treated the doctrine of predestination after that of creation and the fall of man. He writes that seemingly the doctrine of predestination belongs inseparably to the doctrine of God and, therefore, must precede the doctrine of creation and the fall. Nevertheless, according to him, this is not the case.
It is true that infra-lapsarianism injects the historical order in the decrees, of God so that election comes after creation and the fall. It also is true that the Reformed Confessions are usually infra-lapsarian. And this is not correct. For, undoubtedly, what is first in order in God’s decrees is last in history. But it is not true this holds for all Reformed theology of the sixteenth century. And as for myself I have always taught that the order of the decrees of God must be conceived as follows: 1. God determined to glorify himself outside of Himself (this, in fact, is true of all Reformed theology, whether infra. or supra). 2. For the highest realization of this purpose, He appointed His only begotten Son to become the Christ. 3. Again, for the highest realization of this purpose He gave unto Christ the elect, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren. 4. For the realization of this purpose, He determined that not all should be elect but some should be reprobate. 5. Then follows the decree concerning creation and the fall. 6. And the decree concerning all things that have to be realized in history.
But unwittingly I have already begun to criticize and that is not the purpose of this article.
My purpose is rather to present an outline of what Barth teaches about the doctrine of election and reprobation.
This I will continue now.
In paragraph one of the seventh chapter Barth speaks of the election of Jesus Christ.
First of all he offers a definition of “Die Gnadenwahl in Jesus Christus,” the gracious election in Jesus Christ. And this I better translate as literally as possible:
“The gracious election is the eternal beginning of all the ways and works of God in Jesus Christ, in which God in free grace gives or destines (bestimmt) himself for sinful men and sinful men for himself and also takes upon himself the reprobation (Verwerfung) of men with all its consequences and elects men unto participation of his own glory.”
In explanation of this definition, if I may so call it, he has two items: 1. Jesus Christ is both, the electing and the elect. 2. The eternal will of God.
In this explanation a few things demand our special attention.
First of all that Jesus Christ is the electing God. In this connection I must call attention to the fact that Barth must have nothing of what is called a decretum absolutum, an absolute decree. And especially attention must be called to the fact that, according to Barth, Jesus Christ was in the beginning with God. He proposes this especially on the basis of the first two verses of John 1. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” This Word, according to him, was not merely the Son of God, but was Jesus Christ. He writes on pages 111, 112 that this not simply means that in God’s decree Jesus Christ was in the beginning, i.e., from all eternity with God. But it means that Jesus Christ was “im Anfang,” in the beginning with God in reality, as “the firstborn of every creature.”
Secondly, Barth emphasizes that Jesus Christ is also the elect of God as Man. He is not simply “einErwghlter,” an elect, but He is “der Erwshlter,” the elect of God. Other elect are not simply chosen next or alongside of Him, but according to Eph. 1:4 in Him, that is in His person, in His will.
Thirdly, Barth emphasizes that Christ suffered and died, not only for the sin of His people, but also took upon Himself the reprobation of all men. For we all have delivered ourselves unto the wrath of God and unto His reprobation (Verwerfung). But Christ has taken our reprobation upon Himself. But even as the Reprobate, Christ remains the Elect of God. And, therefore, in taking their reprobation upon Himself He has cancelled forever their reprobation. In other words: reprobation is no more.