Barth’s Doctrine of Double Predestination as an Encouragement

The doctrine of predestination (involving election/reprobation) can be a source of much consternation for many people; especially if people believe that the only alternatives can be found in the poles of classical Calvinism or Arminianism. But of course here at the evangelical Calvinist we have found what we think is a better way; a way that may deploy the same nomenclature as what
barthglasseswe find in the classical language, but within a recasted or reified frame of reference — a Christologically concentrated reference.

In Shao Kai Tseng’s new book Karl Barth’s Infralapsarian Theology: Origins and Development 1920–1953 Tseng argues that Barth is “basically infralapsarian.” This claim is quite controversial, particularly because Barth saw himself as a “purified supralapsarian.” These are heady discussions, and ones that have significant import for how one construes their respective doctrine of God, but for our purposes we will avoid getting into the nitty gritty of that in this post and, instead, focus on a description (by Tseng) of Barth’s reformulated doctrine of election—which if you have read my blog for any amount of time at all you will recognize that we have covered this ground over and over again—nevertheless, I think Tseng offers a good reiteration and description of Barth’s doctrine of election/reprobation and how Barth grounds that in the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ.

Tseng writes of Barth’s doctrine of election:

From 1936 (Gottes Gnadenwahl) onward, Barth would describe Christ as vicariously reprobated for the sin of all humankind, so that all humankind, partaking of Christ, may be elected in him, therefore by and with him as he is electing God and elected human. The vicarious reprobation Christ suffered, of which Christ is both the subject and the object, is for Barth God’s eternal, a priori (zum Vornherein) negation of humanity’s sin, and this negation of negation is sublated in God’s gracious election-in-Christ, which presupposes and in a sense preserves the rationality of divine reprobation as manifested in Golgotha. Barth’s understanding of election as the Christocentric Aufhebung of fallen humanity history (the historical aspect of election-in-Christ is especially emphasized in CD IV/1) and divine reprobation is basically in line with infralapsarianism: double predestination deals with the element of sin, and the human race elected in and with Christ is homo lapsus. Again, as a caveat, this basically infralapsarian orientation must not be understood in simple, but in a dialectical manner: Christ as the proper obiectum praedestinationis who took on the sin of all humankind is without sin in himself.

For Barth, God’s No is not the “caprice of a tyrant” arbitrarily deciding from all eternity to send the reprobate to hell forever (to set the record straight, I do not think Barth is entirely fair to historic Reformed orthodoxy when he thinks of it in these terms). Rather, with his basically infralapsarian formulation of election-in-Christ, Barth portrays reprobation as a gracious word of God against the sin that assails God’s covenant partner, a No in Christ negatively posited in order to be sublated for the sake of the Yes, which is God’s gracious election of all humankind in Christo.[1]

As you can see, Tseng is shaping things up towards further developing his thesis that Barth was a “basic infralapsarian,” and honestly I think I am going to still prefer Barth’s self-designation of a “purified supralapsarian.” That’s a technical discussion which we will have to have in another post.

What I wanted to reiterate though through sharing Tseng’s description of Barth’s election/reprobation was the vicarious nature of what Barth believed God in Christ has done for us (and I believe it too!). Barth is attempting to evangelically alleviate the pressure and anxiety fostered by the classical (Augustinian) discussions surrounding election and reprobation. He is wanting to discard the usual discussion that is grounded in God’s decretum absolutum (absolute decree), relative to determining the elect and reprobate, and instead move that discussion to the personal reality of His own Triune life in Jesus Christ. Barth wants to remove the possibility of thinking about anything and in abstraction from Christ. The cash out of this, if Jesus is both electing God, and elected human, is that there is no decree behind the back of Jesus; in other words, when people want to reflect on whether or not they are elect or reprobate they don’t have to think about such questions through decrees, instead they can look to God directly in the face of Jesus Christ and think from there. They can know that when they see the Son they see the will of the Father; they see His being in act, and can understand that there is only love demonstrated and not potential wrath concealed (for the reprobate).

What I have just described is one implication of Barth’s reformulation of election/reprobation, there are other important aspects of this; primarily what it does to “our” doctrine of God. But we will have to explore that more next time, or some time. We will also have to define, better, what supralapsarianism and infralapsarianism entail (Tseng’s quote implicitly does that a bit for the attentive reader).

[1] Shao Kai Tseng, Karl Barth’s Infralapsarian Theology: Origins and Development 1920–1953 (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2016), 36-7.

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