Barth Against the Semi-Pelagian Arminians and Renaissance-Man: What Hath Election to do With Christ?

Barth, in the preceding section, to what we will be reading from him here, has laid down the gauntlet against the doctrine of election as found in Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Bullinger et al. He offers the right amount of praise, for all of them, insofar as they attempted to offer a proper christological reference in regard to their respective doctrines of election; but then notes that each of them, respectively, failed to carry through the necessary theo-logic on an actual christological doctrine of election. We pick up with Barth just as he has been making this same critique against both the Dutch Remonstrants (the Arminians and Arminius), and their opponents found in the Synod of Dort. As you will see, and this interests me greatly, Barth sees the Remonstrant solution to the Dortian understanding of election as falling into the category of Semi-Pelagianism and as a forerunner to the Neo-Protestantism that blossomed more fully in post-Renaissance Western Europe. We will read along with Barth for a bit, and then I will offer some closing comments (and some application to contemporary referents). Barth writes: 

We can say that it would have been good if the orthodox majority at Dort had let the (in any case) remarkable wording remind them of the problem to which the Calvinistic and in particular the Reformation conception of the doctrine had returned so unsatisfactory an answer. But the general tenor of the Remonstrant theology laid down in the Five Articles was so bad that in effect they failed to give the stimulus which they might have given in this respect. The only result was a hardening of the conception inherited from the Reformers. There can be no doubt that the Remonstrants were, in fact, the last exponents of an understanding of the Reformation which Erasmus had once represented against Luther and later Castellio against Calvin; an understanding which can and should be interpreted in the light of the persistence of mediaeval semi-Pelagianism no less than in that of the Renaissance. And as the last exponents of that understanding they were also the first exponents of a modern Christianity which is characterised by the very same ambiguity. They were the first Neo-Protestants of the Church, and it was their basic decision which gave unity to all subsequent developments along this line (from the end of the 17th century onwards). The basic decision which they made was this—that in the understanding of God and His relationship with man, in the question of the formulation of Christian doctrine, the criterion or measure of all things must always be man, ie., man’s conception of that which is right, and rational, and worthy, therefore, of God and man. It was in the light of this basic decision that the Remonstrants opposed to the Calvinistic doctrine of the decretum absolutum the assertion that we cannot and must not state that God elects (and rejects) whom He wills solely upon the basis of His own free beneplacitum [decree] and without reference to conduct, and particularly to belief or unbelief, obedience or disobedience. On the contrary, the divine election is made with due consideration of the conduct of men as foreseen by God from all eternity, ie., of the use which, according to God’s foreknowledge, they make of their freedom, whether in belief or unbelief, whether in obedience or disobedience. It is to this context, unfortunately, that there belongs the intrinsically so remarkable statement of the Remonstrants that Christ is the fundamentum electionis [basis of election], a statement which was obviously meant to outbid and correct the Calvinist statement that Christ is the speculum electionis [mirror of election]. We cannot take the statement to mean that as Christ is the Subject of the saving decree of God, so, too, He is the Subject of the free election which underlies it, an election independent of and preceding and predetermining absolutely all creaturely decisions. It is simply a polemical assertion in the battle against the servum [bondage] and for the liberum arbitrium [freedom of the will]. It does not mean, unfortunately, what in itself the wording might well mean: that in concreto the Calvinistic and Reformation magnifying of the freedom of the election of grace must consist in the magnifying of the sovereignty of Jesus Christ, who in His own person is Himself the God who freely elects and then acts towards the creature, the One behind and above whom there is no other God and no other election. As directed against the decretrum absolutum [absolute decree] the statement does not contend for the dignity of Jesus Christ, but for the dignity of man standing over against Jesus Christ in an autonomous freed of decision. Read in the context of the general teaching of the Five Remonstrant Articles it unfortunately means nothing more than that Christ is the essence of the divine order of salvation. It is in Him that the grace of God is offered to men. It is by their belief or unbelief in Him that the decision is made—according to God’s foreknowledge, but independently—whether the grace of God profits or does not profit them. The Remonstrants did not say that Christ is the electing God. They can never have wanted to say that. What they did want to say, and what they actually did say in this statement, was that in the distinctive sense of the word there is no divine decision at all. There is only the establishment of a just and reasonable order of salvation, of which Christ must be regarded as the content and the decisive instrument. Above and beyond that, there is no more than a divine foreknowledge of what individuals will become as measured by this order of salvation and on the basis of the use which they make of their creaturely freedom. It might almost be called fate that a statement which is so interesting in its wording should engage the attention of Calvinistic orthodoxy, and the Synod of Dort in particular, only in the form of an argument for so revolutionary an error, and that in the mouth of the Remonstrants it should not be a more accurate or Christian definition of the mystery of the election of grace, but an attempt to deny it altogether; an attempt to make of divine predestination something more akin to a religious world-order. [1] 

For Barth, it ought to be clear, that any doctrine of election that attempts to think of it as something ‘behind the back of Jesus’ is not a doctrine worthy of its name. With reference to a comparison between the Remonstrants or ‘Arminians’ and the Dortians or ‘Calvinists,’ clearly Barth believes the better of the two is the latter. Even so, he is just as critical of the Calvinistic and Lutheranistic teachings on election as he is of the Arminians. But within this frame he rightly sees the doctrine put forward by the Remonstrants as semi-Pelagian; that is, insofar that they make God’s election (or rejection) of them contingent on their abstract choice to be either for Christ or against Him; and this from their own liberum arbitrium (freedom of the will).  

In my view, Barth also rightly draws a connection between the Remonstrants and the Neo-Protestants of Renaissance ilk. In other words, there is an emphasis, among all of these groups, respectively, on an abstract human agency (and thus latent rationalism) that leads the ‘Renaissance-man’ to the conclusion that he/she is the terminus upon which all of reality is contingent; for the Arminian all of reality would find its reference in the eternal salvation that Christ is. But this is to the point: for the Arminian logic, whether or not they identify the necessity for a ‘regenerating-grace’ or not, they still operate from a synergist understanding with reference to the salvific event. In other words, ‘their salvation’ is purely contingent not on an absolute Christ-determination, as if election is solely funded by and from Him, as both the Electing God and Elected Man; for the Arminian (and the subsets under them such as the popular movement today known as Provisionism) their election or reprobation is purely attenuated by their choice to cooperate with God in the appropriation of their salvation or not. This gives us a doctrine of election/reprobation that is not Christ-conditioned, from thinking His vicarious humanity into this doctrine, but a doctrine that is solely abstract-human determined making the Christ merely the organon or instrument who meets the conditions required in order for the Arminian to have the “free-choice” to be for God or against Him on their terms rather than His (ie they decide the when and the where that salvation is actualized for them, thus their choice conditions His foreknowledge in regard to whether He elects or rejects them). 

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[1] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II/2 §32-33: Study Edition (New York, New York: T&T Clark, 2010), 70-1.   

 

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