“Election et Foi” The French Connection for Barth’s Reformed Reformulated Doctrine of Election

Here is a little more insight on Karl Barth’s doctrine of election for those who maybe haven’t been exposed to it. This is John McDowell (contributor to both of our Evangelical Calvinism books, by the way) describing the development of Barth’s Christ concentrated conception of election in concert with, and according to Barth himself, motivated by his French friend, Pierre Maury:

Consequently, Maury and Barth force the Reformed tradition to ask substantively what is meant by claiming that “God was in Christ” if Revelation is separated from the very Word of God eternally articulated, and God’s being (as will) is hidden behind Christ so that the gracefulness of God expressed in Christ is particularized in the decretum absolutum and is therefore not essential to what is meant by God. Can this two-stage deity make sense of the development of Christian Trinitarianism and therefore the Christological doctrine of the homoousion? Reasoning strongly that it cannot, Maury and Barth locate here the regulation of philosophical abstraction in much of the tradition. Criticizing both the Calvinist and Lutheran versions of the doctrine of predestination, Barth detects in them “traces of a natural theology . . . traces, that is, of a general view of the freedom of God, based on one philosophical system or another.” The appeal to “natural theology” and “one philosophical system or another” is rather imprecise, but the import of the shorthand criticism is nonetheless clear enough. The Gospel has to do with what Barth suggestively delineates in his seventh Gifford Lecture through the phrase “the Revelation of God, the God who deals with man.” This he would articulate as the irreducible “concreteness, the contingency, the historical singularity of the eternal, absolute, divine Word” of God (and, of course, as CD III/2 impresses, of humanity as well). Accordingly, Maury appeals in “Election et Foi” to election as being “about God.”[1]

It is interesting. Pierre Maury gave impetus to Barth’s doctrine of election, its reformulation of the classical Calvinist understanding, but as you read the particular essay Maury presented and wrote, that gave Barth his impetus what you’ll find is something of a transitional movement from John Calvin’s view (which is classical) to a more concentrated and revised focused on Christ. Barth simply takes Maury’s reworking to its logical conclusion. (I’ve written more on this here)

Beyond the history of development, materially as McDowell brings out, for Barth (and Maury) relegating election to the absolutum decretum abstracts election from the person of God and relegates it to mode of nature wherein God’s life in Christ is no longer necessary for election; that God is not revealed in his election for humanity; that an abstract decree (abstracted from God’s personal life) is the basis for election, a basis grounded in the creation itself (i.e. individual human beings). An implication of this is that Christ only becomes an instrument to accomplish God’s decree of election for the elect individuals he gives his life for with the purchasing power of the cross. The Son, in the incarnation, could in fact be a demi-urge in this scheme rather than the eternal Word of God. If Christ is only an instrument of salvation, and not the sufficient condition for it, then in what way can we be sure that God himself is ultimately even revealed in the redemptive event? If the ground of election is a decree rather than the person of God in Jesus Christ then it’s not possible to say, for sure, whether or not God actually gave his life for humanity.

Maybe this will help understand better some of Barth’s motivation for wanting to reify a doctrine of election that is concretely grounded in God’s life in person, rather than placing this doctrine into a set of decrees. It is this kind of reasoning that helped me to see why Barth’s reformulation of election was so important. Christ is genuinely the key in his framework, and the Chalcedonian Pattern (language from George Hunsinger) is radically present in Barth’s reconstrual of election. An election that looks personally to Jesus Christ rather than abstractly to a Jesus who is only meeting the conditions set out by the absolute decree. I see this as an advancement of theological development; building upon the past, but not settling for the past’s conclusions.

[1] John C. McDowell, “Afterword,” in Simon Hattrell, ed., Election, Barth, and the French Connection: How Pierre Maury Gave a “Decisive Impetus” to Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Election (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2016), loc 3769, 3778.

Advertisements

Pierre Maury, “An Election without Christology,” and The Evangelical Calvinist Way Explained

John Calvin calls the reality of the absolute decree in regard to predestination a “labyrinth;” others in the tradition have equally voiced concern about election as if it is a secret thing bound up in the hidden will of God in eternity. Not to get too overstated, many of these same folks, mostly Calvin, offered relief to the terror that God’s predestination could cause if it wasn’t chained close enough to Jesus; indeed Calvin, even though operating under the Augustinian way began to turn this discussion Christward. If nothing else Calvin provided some of the trajectory and grammar required to develop a better more fully aware Christological account of election. People like John McLeod Campbell, Thomas Torrance, and Pierre Maury were only too ready to pick up the baton and do the kind of developmental work that us Evangelical Calvinists are also keen in developing for the church of God in Jesus Christ. As an example of someone who not only identifies this lacuna in the works of Augustine, Calvin, et al. Pierre Maury, a French theologian of no ill-repute, has this to say:

An Election without Christology

How has it been possible to develop a doctrine full of what Pascal called “false windows”—those windows painted on the facades of some old houses in order to achieve an apparent symmetry? This is what we now need to look into.

We shall see here again the weakness, which we have noted several times, of a doctrine of election that is independent—I mean unconnected to Christology, or rather one that sees in the redemptive Person of Christ nothing but the executor of a purpose formed without him in the darkness of the mystery of God.

If St Augustine, St Thomas, Calvin, Luther, and Pascal had seen more clearly that God has no other thought, no other will, no other action than Jesus Christ, that he dwells in Christ in the fullness of the Godhead, if they had, like St John of the Cross, repeated the famous sentence, “God never speaks any word but one, and that is his Son,” doubtless they would have given us a description of “the grace that is in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim 2:1) by the decision of God, a description that would not make us tremble, but would fill our troubled hearts with peace. And if they had known more clearly that to be elected is to be elected in Christ, and that this election of which we are the object is as freely sovereign, and as independent of any merit on our part, as the absolute decree whose power they venerated, but could not praise, because it was utterly hidden from them, doubtless they would not have caused so many misunderstandings, nor such anxiety in the consciences it was their intention to reassure, and in the long run such ignorance—relative at least—of the love of God and of his Son.[1]

If you sense antecedents, or if you hear echoes of Karl Barth here, or Thomas Torrance, it is because, as I noted in another post, Pierre Maury served, according to Barth, as a decisive impetus to Barth’s own Christologically concentrated understanding of election. This particular essay of Maury’s, “Predestination,” was written after Barth had developed his own understanding in CD II/2; but these thoughts are original to Maury, per his own unique movement towards an development of a Christologically conditioned doctrine of election. Even here in the essay we can see his reference back to St John of the Cross; and this is something I want to alert all of us to. In the history of interpretation prior to Barth or modern developments we have antecedent theologies wherein a doctrine of election that is Christologically steeped is latent. The proof of that is what we see right here in Maury’s essay, or in the work of Thomas Torrance with his constant reference back to Athanasius.

The Evangelical Calvinist Way

My desire as a young (43yrs) and impassioned theologian is to offer an alternative account of evangelical theology to the church catholic. As a North American, whatever I write will be tinted by that location, but hopefully because what I write is so rooted in the transcendent but scandalous particularity of God in Christ, the reach it has will be greater than my own particularity and have some capacity to edify the church catholic.

As Evangelical Calvinists we see a real lacuna in what evangelical Christians are being offered in regard to the type of theology they are being fed through the collaborative work of movements like The Gospel Coalition. I remain very unsatisfied with what is being offered, theologically, by TGC, and so because of that, and because I know I’m not alone, I want to offer alternative ways into Reformed theology that are present in the history of interpretation; Maury being a good example of this alternative way. I want to continue to offer an alternative to the Covenantal theology that the Young, Restless, and Reformed are feeding their churches Sunday in, Sunday out. I believe there is a better way; it’s not a way, as even Maury illustrates, that leaves behind what the past has offered. No, on the contrary, it is attempting to be more creative, more industrious in the resourccement process; looking for thinkers scattered throughout the tapestry of the history of Reformed theology (and beyond) who can be brought to bear, and help us develop an ‘always reforming’ theology that is given regulative and normative reality in and from Jesus Christ; let him alone be the regula fidei (rule of faith)!

In many ways this venture is a lonely one; it is prone to be misunderstood; or to be associated with other movements of theological development that evangelicals are suspicious of. This way seems reckless to the mainstream of evangelical and mainline theologies, because it seems to not care so much about fitting into usual modes of theological and ecclesial being; people fear that the Evangelical Calvinist mode is a wayward one. The way I see all of this, what we are attempting to do with Evangelical Calvinism, is just what I’ve been noting above; we want to follow a Christ conditioned approach that actually works against many of the more church-centered and soteriologically driven (in abstraction) bases for doing the theological work of the church. We aren’t as concerned with the period of church history we resource, instead it’s more about what we resource relative to the truth of it all; i.e. the truth and implications required by the Gospel reality itself. Here is part of what I wrote in the co-written section of our newest Evangelical Calvinist Vol2 book:

In Scholasticism Reformed: Essays in Honor of Willem J. van Asselt, Martijn Bac and Theo Pleizier offer a chapter entitled “Teaching Reformed Scholasticism in the Contemporary Classroom.” Bac and Pleizer outline how scholasticism should be taught today in theological classrooms and they develop how scholastics of the past retrieved authoritative voices for their own material and theological purposes. More than simply reconstructing the history of ideas and theological development, proper scholastic method was concerned to engage the concepts of prior voices from the tradition by appropriating themes and motifs that fit broader theological concerns, and all in order to forward the cause of theological truth. In other words, the greater concern was to organically move within the trajectory and mood set out by the past in order to constructively engage the present and future by developing the ideas of these past voices by placing them within the burgeoning and developing movement of Reformed theology. What Bac and Pleizer highlight is that the scholastic mode of retrieval is very much like Evangelical Calvinism’s method; which ironically runs counter to the typical critique of Evangelical Calvinism as illustrated by Muller. Here is what Bac and Pleizer write in regard to the scholastic method, and what was called “reverential exposition”:

Reformed theologians did not read their sources of Scripture and tradition in a historical sense, i.e., as part of an ongoing tradition, but rather as ‘authorities’ of truth. Until the breakdown of scholasticism and the historical revolution, sources were not quoted in a historical way, be they the Bible, Aristotle, Augustine, or Thomas Aquinas. A quotation did not indicate a correct historical understanding of what its original author had meant, but was read systematically as bearer of truth. From this it follows that contradictions among authorities were solved logically rather than hermeneutically.[2]

There is a real irony to what we’re doing; as I argued further in our book, and you get a sense of above, what we are attempting to do is work within the spirit of the Reformed faith—even more pointedly, the scholasticism Reformed faith. This is ironic because it is folks like TGC and other movements popular in the Reformed evangelical world who see themselves as being faithful to resourcing the Protestant theology of the 16th and 17th centuries; and yet they aren’t really operating in that spirit at all. What is currently underway in the evangelical world (and I’ll keep picking on The Gospel Coalition) is not just a resourcing project (which is the real “scholastic and Reformed” way), but instead a repristination project; a project that is simply seeking to replicate the theology of the past, as they perceive it, driven not by any kind of intentional hermeneutic other than one of piety.

Piety isn’t bad, but it’s not enough; and it’s not thick enough to provide a real hermeneutic and intention from whence to resource from. This is what I am hoping to get across; Evangelical Calvinism as a “resource movement,” as a movement that genuinely does work from the ‘always reforming’ spirit of the Reformed scholastic past, has a center. The center isn’t a piety derived from an individualistically grounded conception of election and the church, instead we are resourcing with the goal of developing theology that is intensively grounded in and from Jesus Christ; radically so.

Conclusion

I submit to you the Pierre Maury example of the type of theology we are attempting to resource for the church of God in Jesus Christ. It’s a more catholic way because it thinks from Christ, the Lord of the church, rather than simply from a particular expression or instantiation of the church that we find present in the local theology of the Protestant Reformed orthodox theologians of the 16th and 17th centuries. We aren’t attempting to promote a certain piety in the church, we are seeking God in Christ first and realizing that all these things [including a healthy piety] will be added unto us from there; as we seek Christ in regulative ways, first.

All of this sounds audacious; I know! But it is the way I am committed to, and a way that I believe an evangelical Christian would rather follow. We aren’t just a receiving faith, we are a speaking faith; and we believe that God in Christ continues to speak to his church afresh and anew today. It is this reality that we work from.

 

[1] Pierre Maury, “Predestination,” in Simon Hattrell, ed., Election, Barth, and the French Connection: How Pierre Maury Gave a “Decisive Impetus” to Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Election (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2016), loc 2115, 2123, 2130.

[2] Myk Habets and Bobby Grow, “Introduction: On Dogmatics and Devotion in the Christian Life,” in Myk Habets and Bobby Grow eds., Evangelical Calvinism: Volume 2: Dogmatics&Devotion (Eugene,OR: Pickwick Publications, 2017), 8.

How Karl Barth Ensnared me With His Doctrine of Election and The Pierre Maury French Connection: With Some Response to William B. Evans

Karl Barth and Pierre Maury © Collection Privée
Let me just say one more thing about Barth. William B. Evans over at his blog, The Ecclesial Calvinist, has picked up on what started online as a result of my posts (presumably) on Karl Barth and Charlotte von Kirschbaum. Evans is a Reformed theologian, and has written some helpful stuff, in particular, on union with Christ. I’ve had some spotty correspondence with him, here and there over the years; the first correspondence was some comments he made at my blog with reference to Karl Barth. I don’t remember exactly what the post was about, but he was respectfully telling me how he had early in his theological studies career been attracted to Barth; but then he realized Barth wasn’t for him, that Barth was just a “cool”-kid phase. In his comments he was trying to persuade me to move on, as I recall, and go onto bigger and more orthodox things. In his most recent post, at his blog, this one, he somewhat rehashes what I just communicated about his approach to Barth, and why he indeed moved away from him. He isn’t using the revelation[s] from the Tietz essay as a bludgeon to beat Barth around the ears with, but he is rightfully disturbed by it all.

I introduce you to Evans, and his post, because he has this way of characterizing folks who are attracted to Barth’s theology; it’s the same sentiment he communicated to me so many years ago. He writes:

I’ll also admit that I went through a phase in seminary when I thought Barth was “cool.” He is fun to read, especially as he interacts with so much of the Christian tradition.  But I found it necessary to move on, in large measure because I was finding his soteriology and ecclesiology to be less than helpful (more on this below).  Many of my graduate school professors had gone through (sometimes passionate) Barthian phases before moving leftward to other forms of theology.  One thing I had in common with my mostly liberal professors was distaste for Barth, though for somewhat different reasons.

The current preoccupation with Barth seems to be to some extent a “younger evangelical” phenomenon. Reasons are not terribly difficult to discern—fatigue with the older generation’s framing of issues, a desire for more interpretive “wiggle room” on certain matters, a concern to do greater justice to the humanity of Scripture, and so forth. In various ways Barth seems to some to provide a “third way” that avoids the pitfalls of both fundamentalism and liberalism.[1]

I’m not sure I fit into the “younger evangelical” crowd (I’m 43) that Evans references (probably), but I don’t fully agree with his characterization. I mean in some ways his characterization does fit some folks at a certain level I’d imagine, but my sole attraction to Karl Barth’s theology had to do not just with a “third way” or a via media, but with a brand-new way of thinking about election/reprobation and the doctrine of predestination. Without this type of reformulation in Barth’s theology I probably never would have been attracted to him. Does this fit into Evans’ characterization of “wiggle room?” Not for me. What Barth offered was a way to think about election/reprobation that was fully grounded in Jesus Christ; so that both election and reprobation were dual realities that could be singularly located in the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ—i.e. he elected humanity for himself, and in his election of humanity he assumed our reprobate (fallen) status—giving us his elect status as sons and daughters of God by participating in his resurrected/recreated humanity by grace (something he had/has by nature).

It was this that hooked me to Barth’s theology (what you’ll find fully articulated in his CD II/2). But now, of course, I’ve been struggling to reconcile Barth’s theology with his chosen lifestyle (i.e. choosing to live a life with his “concubine,” Charlotte von Kirschbaum). For me this means that, as I’ve noted, I’ll be stepping back from Barth’s theology in direct ways (at least for the foreseeable future). But that does not mean there aren’t indirect ways to engage with his theology, and it is these ways that I have already been engaging with for longer than I have been with Barth’s theology; i.e. in other words, the way into Barth’s theology for me has always already been through his best English speaking student’s work, Thomas Torrance.

So I will continue to work with many of the “Barthian” categories, particularly revolving around the doctrine of the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ as that is a related doctrine to Barth’s reformulation of the classical understanding and grammar of election/reprobation and/or double predestination. Interestingly, in this vein, I just picked up a book (which I’ve been wanting to read for quite awhile—since it came out in 2016) entitled: Election, Barth, and the French Connection: How Pierre Maury Gave a “Decisive Impetus” to Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Election. Pierre Maury was a Frenchman, and friend of Barth’s, who presented a paper in 1936 entitled Election and Faith at the Geneva Calvinist Congress. Here is what Barth wrote of this, as he later read the text of that address:

As long ago as 1936 Pierre Maury had delivered an address entitled “Election and Faith” on the occasion of the Geneva Calvinist Congress; that address, which appeared in the same year in the review Foi et Vie, was published in German in 1940 in the Theologische Studien series. Most of those present at the Calvinist Congress were neither prepared, nor apt to receive in their hearts, nor even just simply to register in their brains, what Pierre Maury was saying to them then. There were but few who had any idea of the implications of his thesis in the course of the years that followed, when preoccupations of a political nature loomed so large that they scarcely left time or energy for theological reflection of this sort. But I remember one person who read the text of that address with the greatest attention: myself! It so happened that in the autumn of the same year, 1936, I had to give a course of lectures on the subject of predestination (in Hungary). Pierre Maury and I had of course often spoken of this problem; nevertheless, his 1936 address at once made a profound impression on me. And when a few years later I had occasion to return to the subject in a wider context, I did not merely refer to Pierre Maury’s pamphlet, but stressed that it ought to be considered as one of the best contributions made towards the understanding of the problem. That is why, as I said at the time (CD II/2, 154f), Pierre Maury must be ranked with the rare theologians of the past who, because of the Christological basis of their doctrine, seem to me to have remained here on solid ground (such were Athanasius, Augustine, John Knox, and Johannes Coccejus). One can certainly say that it was he who contributed decisively to giving my thoughts on this point their fundamental orientation. Before I read his study, I had met no one who had dealt with the question so freshly and boldly.[2]

For me, it is good to come across resources like this, and realize that even prior to Barth reformulation of double predestination had already started to take place; Pierre Maury being a prime example of this type of work. Yes, Athanasius, and even Calvin (who Maury is glossing in much of his paper) offered the type of bedrock one would need to proceed as Maury and then as Barth did; and so it is exciting for me to think about pressing further into the antecedents of Barth’s theology itself (which of course Calvin and Athanasius et al. are prime suspects in such an endeavor and are people I’ve spent quite a bit of time with already).

Anyway, I just wanted to register what attracted me to Barth in the first place; it was a particular doctrinal locus. For an evangelical, such as myself, the only alternatives, grammatically offered, was the usual classical Calvinist and Arminian binary of how to navigate election and reprobation. I was never satisfied with that. So Barth and Torrance offered a way out of that whole penumbra by offering, in my view, an illumined way of thinking about a doctrine of election through the sunshine of God in Jesus Christ. Without this offering Barth would have never been on my radar to begin with; but with it, his theological reformulation, as it intensively settled on Jesus Christ, gave me great joy to involve myself in the theological endeavor.

 

[1] William B. Evans, Why I Still Don’t Much Care for Karl Barth, accessed 10-03-2017.

[2] Karl Barth, Basel, February 1957 in Simon Hattrell, ed., Election, Barth, and the French Connection: How Pierre Maury Gave a “Decisive Impetus” to Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Election (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2016), loc 765, 772 kindle.