Ephesians 1.4, Election, Assurance and Moving Beyond Identity with Karl Barth

I want to keep pressing this idea on the importance of election. Beyond drawing bright lines between various tribes of interpretation I want to emphasize the import of this doctrine materially, and the impact it has upon our perception of God and us. I think too often what gets youngbarthlost in a discussion like this is, indeed, the actual constructive theological consideration we purportedly are endeavoring to engage with. In other words, I am afraid that we get too interested in trying to self-promote our own theological identities to the point that we get lost in that fog and fail to recognize the significant material (and formal) theological distinctions on offer; and thus we fail then to capitalize on the value that the array of theological loci have towards cultivating disciples of Christ in our local church bodies (I digress!).

So the following will be a quote from G.C. Berkouwer (again!), and his read of Barth’s understanding of election and its impact on a doctrine of assurance of salvation. [Berkouwer does not agree with Barth, ultimately, but he does offer a pretty good description of Barth’s approach, and what Barth was attempting to squelch in regard to self-focus and anxiety relative to discerning one’s salvation] Berkouwer will offer a little historical detail, and then jump right into Barth’s view and how it relates to his interpretation of Ephesians 1:4.

καθὼς ἐξελέξατο ἡμᾶς ἐν αὐτῷ πρὸ καταβολῆς κόσμου, εἶναι ἡμᾶς ἁγίους καὶ ἀμώμους κατενώπιον αὐτοῦ ἐν ἀγάπῃ,

just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. Ephesians 1.4

What, then, is the deepest reason for the difference between Calvin and Barth? [on election] Our earlier analysis will already have suggested the answer to this question. According to Barth, the Lutheran and the Reformed doctrines of election have weakened the connection between Christ and election. In that doctrine Christ is seen only as the executor of election, not as its foundation. Therefore there is a vacuum behind election which the pastoral office is not able to fill.

In a certain sense, the debate centers around the exegesis of Eph. 1:4. Barth judges that there can be certainty only when this verse is understood to meant that Christ is not only the executor but also the foundation of election, because the decision of election is taken in Him and thereby all men have been elected in Him. Only then is certainty possible, only then can there be a knowing unmarred by threat. In the revelation of Christ the fact of the election of all men has been revealed. This universal election stands revealed as God’s decisive election. All uncertainty is removed by this universally decisive act of God. That which Barth sees as a “blind spot,” a sinister “vacuum,” in the traditional view, he fills with this decisive act of God which forms the content of the kerugma. In this manner Barth thinks to correct the Reformation doctrine of election on the score of the certainty of salvation and thus do full justice to Eph. 1:4.

This certainty can now point to its foundation: Christ as the rejected and elected One. The kerugma has this unassailable decisiveness as its concrete content, and as God’s definite decision precedes all human decisions. It does not assume the human decision, but in faithfulness it triumphs over that decision which is a rebellion against grace. In this way Christ is not merely the mirror of election, He is the manifestation of our election in Him.[1]

Berkouwer follows what I just quoted from him (in his book) with fear that Barth’s program necessarily leads to universalism; even though he recognizes that Barth didn’t think so (and rejected universalism).

Beyond that, what do you think worry about hooking into one particular theological tradition over another will do in the way that we receive Barth on his ostensible reformulation of the trad conception of election? I think if we move beyond trying to locate ourselves theologically and simply look at Barth’s critique and reformulation of the trad conception of election that it becomes pretty clear that he at the very least is onto something!

We need to be able to look at Christ as not only the exemplum (exemplar) of humanity, but to use Calvin’s language as the very ‘mirror of our election’ without remainder, without partiality. If there is a 1% chance that Jesus may have not elected to die for you personally, then when extrapolated, that 1% can become an infinite gap between the possibility of you and God being truly reconciled; and 1% is just too much to bear. Jesus didn’t become 99% human for us (pro nobis), he became 100% human for us, and that before the foundation of the world (Deus incarnandus ‘the God to be incarnate’). The force of this fact is much more than a declarative one, it is ontic reality; viz. the eternal Logos, the eternal Son has elected to be the very ground of our humanity as he is the very icon or image of God (cf. Col. 1.15) in whose image we not only have been created but recreated (resurrected), in his vicarious humanity.

Conclusion

How do I tie this somewhat fragmented post up? Let’s just say this: It is all about Jesus!

 

 

[1] G.C. Berkouwer, The Triumph Of Grace In The Theology Of Karl Barth: An Introduction And Critical Appraisal (Grand Rapids, Michigan: WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1956), 286-87.

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6 comments

  1. Bobby,

    I am reading through “The Incarnation of God” by Marcus Peter Johnson (highly recommended), and I have realized just how important starting theology with the incarnation is. When you don’t start with the incarnation (i.e. the ground of all reality) when dealing with doctrines, you simply cannot have christ as the center. I think that a lot of mainstream theologians, especially those from the TGC, don’t take the incarnation in this manner. Christ person (and who He is for us) becomes separated from His work (this is seen in debates about election, atonement, reconciliation, etc…). We are forced to look somewhere else then Christ when we leave out the importance of the incarnation. What are your thoughts Bobby? Do you agree?

    Also, I want to thank you for this blog. You have opened me up to a new world of theological reflection, and have saved me from the many worries and problems that came with what I was being taught in Bible class (I.e Classical Calvinism and Dispensationalism). I have been a long time reader, but this is my first comment!

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  2. As a Lutheran Pastor I believe that Jesus, as a person of the Trinity is the architect, foundation and executor of election from before the foundation of the world. If there is a “Universalism” thought to the doctrine of election it is mistakenly from the individual who may say “I believe in god/religion, I’m a good person therefore I must be saved.” This person has no regard for what the sinful nature is doing daily with sins of thought, word and deed. From a biblical understanding there is the reality of Objective Justification (John 3:16) with the understanding that Jesus died for the sins of all, but only those who believe in Him are saved. This is the work of the Holy Spirit, to make change in the hearts of all. Also, the Universalist will dismiss all other doctrines from scripture that differentiate orthodox Christianity from other religions for his/her belief that only believing, faithfully in a deity will suffice. Of course, there are many forms of universalism along the spectrum. Let the mystery of God remain and we simply acquiesce to His Word and faithfully believe Jesus died and rose for me.

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  3. Hi David,

    Thanks for letting me know that you have been a reader here for awhile; I am glad that you have found the blog edifying to some extent!

    Yes, Johnson’s book is good. I see it, really, as a distillation of what we have been communicating through EC themes. I think what Johnson and his co-author are doing in that book are making accessible what has been somewhat academic (in our EC book) for the masses … and that is highly commendable! Johnson is actually a contributor of 2 chapters to our edited EC book that came out in 2012. We are under contract to write another EC volume currently, and Johnson will be contributing once again!

    And yes, of course 🙂 , I agree that if we separate God’s person from work that we are out on a wild goose chase! This is a key EC insight (and one that comes from both Barth and Torrance among other theologians from the past).

    Glad you are here, David!

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  4. Hi Michael,

    Yes, we Evangelical Calvinists agree with much of your sentiment. Of course we operate as Reformed theologians, nevertheless there is much in Lutheran thought that resonates. And yes there is a fecundity to the Gospel that we ought to simply be silent before and just worship!

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  5. As an Augustinian objector (sorta) to Barth (though with peace and thanksgiving for this teacher), here’s the following thought/rebuttal:

    Augustine would compare salvation to the story of Passover, and though the Angel brought death to all of Egypt, only the Lamb’s blood saves. Thus our confidence and hope is in that blood, though judgment comes upon all. Luther, similarly, was adamant about Baptism in the same way. It’s the visible promise that yes, Jesus is for us.

    Maybe Barth would say this is the correct story, but what is mistaken is that Jesus is a greater lamb?

    To me, it seems that, like the OT, only Israel is saved, but Israel is more than an ethnic fellowship, it’s one in the Spirit. Christ, as Israel, is the saved (the whole Christ, head & body), as Christ too is also the Lamb who cleanses (Christ bearing both the role of the ram and Isaac, the substitute and the son).

    some thoughts,
    cal

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  6. Cal, I see the one for the many (like in an Abrahamic sense of “many”) at play in Scripture; and I see this fitting much better with Barth’s/Torrance’s conception of election as ontic grounding for all of humanity–wherein salvation is realized by those who repent and believe.

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