In or Out? – Karl Barth and the Doctrine of Election

Election is a dirty word in the United Methodist Church. In this particularly problematic political season we like to keep people happy so we generally avoid talking about politics and elections. We want people to think for themselves and pray for the Spirit to guide them in such matters. Otherwise we leave the topic at arms length. However, even more divisive than American Politics has been the church’s response to the Doctrine of Election.

The topic of God’s divine election is one that we often get hung up on in our weekly Bible studies at church. We can be talking about any number of things from scripture when all of the sudden the conversation moves to whether or not God ordained a specific tragedy to occur, or why would a loving God elect some for salvation and some for damnation. Then we tend to travel down the deep rabbit hole in arguments about free will and God’s sovereignty.

To talk about election is to take steps into mystery. We like to have answers to all of our questions, we like things to be neat and orderly, and God often gives us the opposite. Only God, in God’s infinite knowledge and power, could elect certain individuals and only humanity, in our sinfulness and selfishness, could spend centuries arguing about what it means to be part of the elect.

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Even on the UMC’s denominational website there is a long essay about whether or not United Methodists believe “once saved, always saved” or can we “lose our salvation.” And in the essay, a good amount of space is spent address Calvin’s so called “TULIP” theological principles (Total Depravity; Unconditional Election; Limited Atonement; Irresistible Grace; and Perseverance of the Saints). For Calvin, God has chosen, based on God’s own criteria, whom to save and whom not to save, long before anyone was born. Moreover, Jesus’ act of “atonement” from the cross is efficacious only for those whom God has elected for salvation.

John Wesley however, influenced by Jacobus Arminius, believed that only God can save and God does so unconditionally for all. There is no pre-selected list in the mind of God about who will be rewarded with salvation and who will be punished with damnation. Instead God’s grace is offered preveniently to all, and humanity has the capacity to respond to this grace. We have the ability (through free will) to reject God’s grace and in so doing we remove ourselves from the equation of salvation.

These types of distinctions about divine election or rejection have been debated throughout the history of the church and have played a primary role in the propagation of the seemingly endless amount of Christian denominations. We disagree about what we believe God is up to with election and therefore we create schisms in the church that result in the mosaic of churches rather than dwelling together in unity.

Karl Barth saw the Doctrine of Election differently.

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In Church Dogmatics II.2 Barth sets out to confront what it is that makes one “elect.” He begins with a general answer that those who are elect are elect without reference to their person or in recognition of any special attributes or achievements. There is nothing that one can do to earn their elect status. To be elect is to enter into a way of being that corresponds with election; those who are elect are what they are.

Barth then, in a profound and wonderful excursus, compares the elect and the rejected throughout the Old Testament as a means by which to point at what it means to be elect in Jesus Christ. He begins with the dualism of Cain and Abel from Genesis 4. The difference between the brothers is not based on any prior mark of distinction, but from a decision of God’s concerning them. However, even though one is clearly favored and the other is not, this does not mean that God has abandoned or rejected Cain in the way we so commonly assume. It is true that God does not accept Cain and his family for the murder of his brother, but he is not abandoned by God because of this. Instead he receives the promise that God will protect his life.

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Thus begins a great trajectory throughout the Old Testament of mutually intersecting differences between people. Esau is the older and favorite son of Isaac, but it is Jacob (the younger brother) who receives the birthright and the true blessing. Yet, God does not abandon him. Jacob loves Rachel more than Leah but Leah is the one the Lord makes fruitful. And yet Rachel does not remain barren and eventually gives birth to Joseph. And Joseph, though rejected by his older brothers and sold into slavery is intimately connected with the future of God’s people and the brothers (though treacherous) are not abandoned to the famine but are instead forgiven and brought into the land of Egypt.

The same holds true for the dynamic between Saul and David (Saul is actually blessed far more than David even through the Lord moves the blessing from the former to the latter), and other figures from the Old Testament scriptures. Barth demonstrates again and again that though they appear rejected by the Lord, they are in fact blessed and intimately involved in God’s great story that culminates in Jesus Christ.

And it is here where Barth shines a light on the darkness of our understanding of election. For it is precisely in the person of Jesus Christ that we discover not only the elect but also the reject. “According to His divine nature, Jesus Christ is the (elect) eternal Son who reposed in the bosom of the eternal Father, and who coming thence took our flesh upon Him to be and to offer this sacrifice, for the glory of God and for our salvation, and by taking our place to accomplish our reconciliation to God. But as such and in the accomplishment of this reconciliation He is, necessarily, the Rejected. Like the (scapegoat) He must suffer the sin of many to be laid upon Him, in order that He may bear it away… out into the darkness, the nothingness from which it came to which it alone belongs.”[1] In the humiliation of the cross, Christ was also exalted. In the rejection of the Son on the cross (who cries out ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”), Christ was also the elect who shares the beauty of reconciliation.

In Christ we discover one who is reject and elect. In the incarnation of God in the flesh we encounter the mystery of what it means to be chosen by God and what it means to respond to that call.

In the one man on the one cross (as reject and elect) we see all of the dualisms of the Old Testament, all of the people who were either elected or rejected. But through the resurrection, all who are either elect or rejected remain in Him, and in Him the Word of God conquered death which shall be proclaimed through eternity.

For Barth, it is not so much that God began the mysterious work of creation with a list of all who will be elected for salvation and all who will be rejected for damnation. Instead, God remains steadfast even with those who move away (by their choice or the Lords – only God knows), God offers the grace forever even if it is rejected over and over again, and God provides the means by which all can be saved through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

 

 

[1] Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics II.2 (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2004), 365.

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