Karl Barth’s Critique of John Calvin’s View of Election and Reprobation: Getting Beyond the ‘Absolute Decree’

johncalvinIf Jesus only elects certain individuals for salvation, and then elects others for damnation (reprobation); from whence does someone’s assurance of salvation come from? How do they know that they are one of the elect for whom Christ has died, or for whom Christ has interceded (cf. Heb. 7:25)? This is a dilemma that one is presented with if you follow John Calvin’s view of double predestination, or any of the post Reformed orthodox, Calvinist theologians who followed Calvin and the Augustinian lead on this. It is this view of election and reprobation that Karl Barth critiqued thusly:

How can we have assurance in respect of our own election except by the Word of God? And how can even the Word of God give us assurance on this point if this Word, if this Jesus Christ, is not really the electing God, not the election itself, not our election, but only an elected means whereby the electing God—electing elsewhere and in some other way—executes that which he has decreed concerning those whom He has—elsewhere and in some other way—elected? The fact that Calvin in particular not only did not answer but did not even perceive this question is the decisive objection which we have to bring against his whole doctrine of predestination. The electing God of Calvin is a Deus nudus absconditus.[1]

To be fair to Calvin, he was working from what David Gibson has identified in his published PhD dissertation Reading the Decree: Exegesis and Christology in Calvin and Barth following Richard Muller’s distinction between Barth and Calvin as: ‘soteriological christocentrism and principial christocentrism (Calvin follows the former).[2]That notwithstanding, at a material level, Barth’s critique, I believe stands. If there is a decree that is ontologically distinct and outwith God’s life in Christ (as there is in Calvin)[3], a decree  (or a will in God that is not necessarily related to Jesus) by which God chooses some to salvation and reprobates others to damnation, then can we really ever look to Jesus for assurance of salvation? It would seem that instead, as Barth is noting, that we must look behind the back of Jesus to the decree itself in order to know whether or not we are truly saved. But this decree, impersonal as it is (and not necessarily or personally related to God’s life), cannot provide any real lively hope; only Jesus can.

I go with Barth’s critique of Calvin on this issue. It could be said at this fork in the road, that Calvin offers up a ‘God behind the back of Jesus.’ Meaning that there is an inaccessible decree, even through Jesus, that is determining the way that God chooses or not people for salvation. The decree is an abstraction, and thus not personally related to God in any meaningful way.


[1] Karl Barth, “CDII/2,” 111 cited by Oliver D. Crisp, “I Do Teach It, but I Also Do Not Teach It: The Universalism of Karl Barth (1886-1968),” in ed. Gregory MacDonald, All Shall Be Well: Explorations in Universalism and Christian Theology, from Origen to Moltmann (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011), 355.

[2] David Gibson, Reading the Decree: Exegesis and Christology in Calvin and Barth (London: T&T Clark A Continuum Imprint, 2009), 6. See the hyperlink to a post I have written that elaborates further on the definitional reality associated with this hermeneutical distinction between Barth and Calvin’s hermeneutics.

[3] This would fit well with Calvin’s voluntarism (i.e. that God’s will and commands or decrees are arbitrarily and thus non-necessarily related to God’s being/persons in relation. See the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy for further explication of ‘voluntarism’.

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3 Responses to Karl Barth’s Critique of John Calvin’s View of Election and Reprobation: Getting Beyond the ‘Absolute Decree’

  1. Cal says:

    I agree that Calvin (and Luther) put forth a fear inducing ‘hidden God’ behind Jesus that looks very little like our Lord (and cannot be imagined at all!). Calvin’s speech on the decrees are spooky, but he was at least humble and shaken enough to undercut his own writing by saying that such was not worth discussing.

    Anyway, I don’t think that necessarily undercuts confidence, though it certainly damages presumption. The imagery that is pertinent is the language of roots, trees and engrafting. We can not presume, but have confidence, because everything is ‘in christ’ (vis. Bullinger). But that can not exceed the particulars of a calling and engrafting. We’re warned just as much as we are added (we as gentiles), we can be broken off.

    We receive salvation freely, and cannot merit it, but we work it out with fear and trembling. Jesus is our hope and comfort, but He too speaks harshly with those who never knew Him and are locked out.

    I think Barth makes a false dichotomy, though rightly criticizes Calvin.


  2. Bobby Grow says:

    Hi Cal,

    I don’t agree with you, but that’s okay. 🙂 We have an excellent case study with both Puritan England and Puritan America, and the results of what happens when this kind of double predestinarianism blossoms. We end up with what experimental predestinarianism, the practical syllogism, the Divine pactum and serious assurance of salvation issues. This is not an accident of Puritanism, this is not a pos hoc relation to something like Calvin forwarded on predestination; but, I would argue, is a direct consequent.

    And then of course as far as working out salvation etc. I see that grounded in the vicarious humanity of Christ. And here, Calvin is good with his ‘double grace-union with Christ’ soteriology. We look to Christ as the ground, which I take Barth’s theology on this point as emphasizing.

    In re to using Rom 9–11, I don’t think that works. Rom 9–11 in context is referring to vocation and a dialectic relation between the Church and Israel, both pointing or as Suzanne McDonald has rightfully identified in her book Re-imaging Election representing Christ one to the other. But the emphasis and category, I would argue, is on vocation and not the dogmatically enriched category of soteriological proper.


  3. Cal says:

    I’m not arguing for double predestinarianism but particularism in being called. The Puritan mood (and that’s what it is) resulted in many a thing. The nightmares that resulted in the Anglo-American world were partially to blame in the ‘hidden God’ decree dealing god that Calvin put behind Jesus. But it also has to do with the reintroduction of the scholastic spirit and Constantinian presumptions. It’s not so easily one thing to blame.

    Richard Sibbes, and Cranmer’s concept of allurement (as I understand from Ashley Null), argued for particularism, but did not devolve down into what you call, but was also apart of the Puritan mood of Anglo-America. I’ve benefited from some of the stuff you’ve posted from your former prof, Ron Frost.

    When Paul addresses the tree it covers both national destiny and individual placement. It’s more than individualistic salvation, and deals with Vocation, but the former is wrapped up in the latter. He speaks to specific Gentiles in Rome, that they cannot mock Israel as they are engrafted on. Sadly that was left behind in some supersecessionist rants against the Jews in the centuries after the Apostles.

    And I also refer to Jesus in John 15 about abiding and being broken off.


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