Saturday, May 29, 2004

John Colwell on Barth's Doctrine of Election 

Karl Barth has frequently been accused of holding a particular form of universalism. In “The Contemporaneity of the Divine Decision: Reflections on Barth’s Denial of ‘Universalism’” [Nigel M. de S. Cameron (ed.), Universalism and the Doctrine of Hell (Carlisle, UK: Paternoster Press, 1992) pp.139-160] John Colwell seeks to defend Barth from this charge. According to Colwell,
…for Barth, the doctrine of election is that which determines the theological definition of all men and women. Human existence is not some autonomous state determined by a man or woman’s own being and actions, it is rather determined by God’s gracious decision of election. Jesus Christ himself is both the electing God and the elected man. He himself has borne God’s rejection on behalf of all men and women and he himself is the elect of God: all who are elect are so exclusively in him and, since all men and women are defined ontologically as elect in him, there can be no other authentic definition of humanity…. For Barth, the true object of the doctrine of election is not some abstract concept of humanity in general, nor the totality of the human race, nor particular individuals; the true and sole object of election is Jesus Christ himself… [145]
Colwell maintains that, for Barth, the person who rejects God’s gracious election has chosen that possibility which God has, in Christ, determined to be impossible. How can this be maintained without going on to assert universalism? Colwell argues that ‘Barth’s concern is with a definition of being rather than with any assumption regarding the actual being of particular individuals, a concern for the ontological rather than for the ontic [147-8].’ Humanity has been declared elect in the ‘royal’ human — Jesus Christ. In the life of Christ the realization of God’s ordination for humanity occurred. Corresponding to God’s choice of mankind for Himself, was Christ’s choice of Himself for God. True humanity in us is realized on the basis of its prior realization in Christ. As we live in faith and obedience true humanity is actualized. [John Webster (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Karl Barth (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000) p.107]. Those who choose against God’s ordination in Christ are falsifying the true meaning of their being and existence. They are choosing the ‘impossible possibility’. Although all men and women are ontologically defined as elect in Christ, this does not imply universalism. The actual election of men and women only occurs through the continuing activity of God. Colwell quotes Barth:—
It is always the concern of God to decide what is the world and the human totality for which the man Jesus Christ is elected, and which is itself elected in and with Him. It is enough for us to know and remember that at all events it is the omnipotent loving-kindness of God which continually decides this. For the fact that Jesus Christ is the reality and revelation of the omnipotent loving-kindness of God towards the whole world and every man is an enduring event which is continually fulfilled in new encounters and transactions, in which God the Father lives and works through the Son, in which the Son of God Himself, and the Holy Spirit of the Father and the Son, lives and works at this or that place or time, in which He rouses and finds faith in this or that men, in which He is recognized and apprehended by this and that man in the promise and in their election — by one here and one there, and therefore by many men.
Seemingly for Barth, election is not some past completed decision in ‘eternity past’. Rather election is something that is continually being actualized by the sovereign work of the Holy Spirit. Colwell seeks to demonstrate how Barth’s view of election ties in with his understanding of God’s eternity. For Barth, God’s eternity is not ‘absolute otherness to time’. God’s eternity is rather His ‘freely chosen time’. God’s eternity is ‘pure simultaneity’; past, present and future are all equally and simultaneously present to God, without denying their distinctions. There is some analogy to be observed between God’s eternity and God’s omnipresence; just as God’s omnipresence does not negate space, so God’s eternity does not negate time. In the incarnation God takes our time to Himself, ‘permitting created time to become and be the form of His eternity.’ He becomes ‘present for us in the form of our own existence and our own world.’ God, however, is not trapped in the succession of time that we experience. God is not ruled over by time, but possesses time freely. Once we have understood Barth’s understanding of God’s eternity, his doctrine of election starts to take clearer shape. For Barth, God’s decision of election is a continual dynamic decision rather than a static decision of the past. God can never be trapped within His ‘primal decision’, because His decision is ‘authentically temporal’ and includes within it past, present and future. When Barth’s doctrine of election is considered in its relationship with his understanding of God’s eternity ‘the divine decision to elect is seen to be contemporaneous with the human history of those elected.’ Does this mean that election ceases to be a truly ‘divine’ decision? If all men are elect in Christ is the only thing that determines the actual inclusion or exclusion of individuals in this election a mere human decision? Barth has been accused of understanding the human act of faith primarily in noetic terms. Faith for Barth is the human act that identifies men and women as Christians. Barth argues that it is not creative but cognitive in character. Colwell argues that it is important to appreciate that, for Barth, ‘knowledge’ can never be the mere ‘acquisition of neutral information.’ In the process of biblical knowledge ‘that which is known confronts and totally transforms the knower.’ The human act of faith may only have a cognitive rather than a creative character, but it occurs as a result of the creative event of the Holy Spirit which transforms the being of the Christian. That which distinguishes the elect is the Holy Spirit’s effectual call. It is through the work of the Holy Spirit that that which is already an actuality in the person of Jesus Christ is made actual in man. By the Holy Spirit, the ontological connection between Jesus Christ and men and women is made an existential reality. Consequently election is truly a divine decision. Those who have not been effectually called are not to be looked upon as unelect, but rather as only apparently rejected. This is, of course, not to deny the possibility of the ‘impossible possibility’ of final rejection.
Putting the pieces together. The doctrine of election ontologically defines all human beings. The whole human race is loved by God in Christ. The definition of humanity is determined by God’s love in Christ. To be truly human is to be elect in Christ. Those who reject this definition choose an ‘impossible possibility’ and deny the true meaning of their existence and being. This, however, is not the same as universalism. Humanity’s election in Christ is an ontological definition and not an ontic actualization. Human rejection of God’s electing love towards the whole humanity in Christ is a possibility, albeit an ‘impossible’ possibility. That it is an ‘impossible possibility’ is merely to say that it is made under the ‘non-willing’ of God. God’s will has not graced this choice with any validity. That which God does not positively will, however, is under the threat of His ‘unwillingness’ and wrath, which is nothing other than the jealousy of His love. The possibility of reprobation is therefore not denied but rather affirmed by the reality of the universality of God’s love. The ‘ontic actualization’ of the election that is already an actuality in Christ in individuals is achieved by the free work of the Holy Spirit. The work of the Holy Spirit is that which distinguishes the elect from the apparently reprobate. The result of the work of the Holy Spirit is faith. Faith itself, however, has no creative character. For Barth election is a dynamic decision contemporaneous with human history. This is due to the fact that God’s eternity is understood as authentic temporality — His freely chosen time. Election is not a decision of ‘eternity past’, rather it includes within it past, present and future. This electing decision is decidedly Trinitarian. Colwell writes:
The work of the Holy Spirit is no more an addendum to the completed work of the Son than the work of the Son is an addendum to the eternal decision of the Father.
The incarnated, crucified and resurrected Christ becomes the linchpin of the doctrine of election. In Him humanity is declared to be elect. Through the continued work of the Holy Spirit the electing decision in the Man Christ Jesus is made actual in the lives of men and women.
Whilst I still need to give a lot more consideration to Barth’s doctrine of election, I can certainly appreciate the appeal of this understanding. In my estimation, it has a number of key points in its favour. I. Election is far more rooted in the Triune God. The relationships that exist between the different Persons of the Trinity play a far more central role. The Spirit is not marginalized as He is in some forms of the doctrine of election. II. It seems to me that Barth’s doctrine of election is one that can be essentially constructed from the materials provided by Christology. Its Christocentric character (although perhaps occasionally at risk of the excesses of Christomonism) protects it from a depersonalized determinism. God’s election is always personal. The content of this decree has been revealed in the incarnate Christ in whom election is actualized and so the doctrine need not threaten us. Rather the doctrine of election directs our attention to Christ Himself. It is through a personal relationship with the Elect One by the Spirit that we can know our own election as a reality. III. Barth’s understanding of eternity can help to relieve some of the problems that attach themselves to the concept of election in ‘eternity past’. If God’s decree is an abstract decree in ‘eternity past’ determining all that will come to pass, one cannot help but feel threatened by it. Whether we are elect or not, it does seem to depersonalize us. Within such a decree human decision not only seems to be denied any ultimacy (which is a good thing), it also seems to be virtually negated altogether (which is not, in my opinion, a good thing). If everything has been predetermined in ‘eternity past’ does not history risk becoming a meaningless charade? I believe that Barth’s approach is suggestive of ways in which we can maintain the authenticity of human decisions, while still maintaining the absolute sovereignty of God. No longer does a prior decision of the Father in ‘eternity past’ make election appear to be a fait accompli to be ‘outworked’ within history. More weight can be placed on the reality of God’s sovereignty in history. The sovereign freedom of God’s work in the present can be maintained. God is not ‘imprisoned’ to merely acting out His prior decree. I believe that the very concept of ‘eternity past’ can risk threatening the freedom of God by suggesting that He is in some sense unfree in the succession of past, present and future. He would become bound by time just as we are. If God’s electing decision is dynamic and contemporaneous the reality of human freedom can be preserved without a denial of the absolute sovereignty of God. The human being that God elects is not an abstract conception in God’s own mind, but is a real concrete living person ‘other’ to God Himself. The man is certainly not autonomous, but this does not mean that he is a tabula rasa. Those elected by God in Christ are men who were created to bear His image. They are men in concrete situations and men who live in concrete relationships. They are not Cartesian individuals. The importance of the Church and the means of grace will not be threatened by such an understanding of election. The importance of the historical aspect of election can now be seen without condemning the doctrine to merely exist in history. Election never becomes a mere historical decision, nor does it become a decision pre-existing and determining history from afar: God’s elects in His ‘authentic temporality’. Redemptive history and eschatology can play a far more prominent role in such understanding of election. It is interesting that, in Scripture, election is related to eschatology in a manner that the traditional Reformed doctrine never seems to be entirely capable of adequately doing justice to, even in its more nuanced forms. IV. Barth’s doctrine explains how the universal offer of the gospel can be grounded in a universal love of God without subscribing to the doctrine of universalism. V. Barth seems to provide a far more compelling account of anthropology. Barth’s doctrine of election relates anthropology and Christology in a far more satisfying manner than the traditional doctrine. God is saving a ‘human totality’ and a ‘world’, not just individuals. This, however, does not demand universalism. By claiming that election in Christ ontologically defines all men and women as elect in Christ, Barth provides us with the materials by which we can relate the old humanity to the new humanity without confusing them. As Tim Gallant recently observed on his blog Adam was, in some sense, created ‘in the Son’. True ‘anthropology’ is determinatively revealed in the incarnate Son. As John Zizioulas observes, the ‘substratum of existence is not being but love’ — one might also say ‘not bare creation, but covenant — creation as covenant.’ Mankind was created by the loving will of God ‘in the Son’. All things were made with Christ in mind. God’s loving will is identifiable with the final consummation of creation in communion with God ‘in Christ’ (the incarnate Son). The incarnate Son is the personification of God’s loving will. The understanding of anthropology that this leads us to is beautifully Christological, ecclesiological and eschatological. The true being of humanity is with Christ in God. This true being is yet future but this future invades the present in the reality-filled anticipation of this future that is the Church as the Body of Christ — the gift of the future in the present. Exegesis of Colossians 3:1-11 should bear out most of these points beautifully. Much more could be said, but I will stop here. I was surprised to notice how much my own thoughts had converged with those of Barth on this issue, even prior to my reading him on the subject. If I have time in the next few months I might try to give more attention to the issue.

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