Karl Barth’s Reformulated Doctrine of Election, And Its Implications Towards the Way We Speak of Others; Including Donald Trump

I want to share some quotes from Karl Barth and Tom Greggs. All of these quotes either come from the body or footnotes of my personal chapter for our latest Evangelical Calvinism book (2017). I want to share the quotes, comment a little on their material presence, and then offer some sort of reflective application of them for the churches. In other words, the aim of this post is to attempt to take a technical theological locus and show how it has so called ‘practical’ value; say for human relationships, and maybe even political ones.

Karl Barth writes,

This all rests on the fact that from the very first He participates in the divine election; that that election is also His election; that it is He Himself who posits this beginning of all things; that it is He Himself who executes the decision which issues in the establishment of the covenant between God and man; that He too, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, is the electing God. If this is not the case, then in respect of the election, in respect of this primal and basic decision of God, we shall have to pass by Jesus Christ, asking of God the Father, or perhaps of the Holy Spirit, how there can be any disclosure of this decision at all. For where can it ever be disclosed to us except where it is executed? The result will be, of course, that we shall be driven to speculating about a decretum absolutum instead of grasping and affirming in God’s electing the manifest grace of God. And that means that we shall not know into whose hands we are committing ourselves when we believe in the divine predestination. So much depends upon our acknowledgement of the Son, of the Son of God, as the Subject of this predestination, because it is only in the Son that it is revealed to us as the predestination of God, and therefore of the Father and the Holy Spirit, because it is only as we believe in the Son that we can also believe in the Father and the Holy Spirit, and therefore in the one divine election.[1]

And Tom Greggs offers commentary on the sort of sentiment we just witnessed in Barth’s reformulation of election, as a Christ concentrated conception:

There is no room for a prior decision of God to create, or elect and condemn before the decision to elect Jesus Christ (no decretum absolutum); instead, Jesus Christ is Himself the ultimate decretum absolutum.[2]


Election’s nature is . . . Gospel. The dialectic evident in Romans remains and can be seen between electing God and elected human in its most extreme form in terms of election and rejection. Humanity continues to need to be rescued by God in its rejection of Him. What is new is that this dialectic is now considered in a wholly Christological way which brings together the Yes and No of God in the simultaneity of the elected and rejected Christ. It is He who demonstrates salvation as its originator and archetype. It is, therefore, in the humanity of the elected Christ that one needs to consider the destiny of human nature.[3]

Maybe you can infer how I would use these quotes in the chapter I wrote on assurance of salvation. But the most important point I want to highlight, currently, is that in the Barthian reformulation of election the focus is no longer on individual/abstract people scurrying around on the earth, but instead upon the ground of all humanity as that is realized in the archetypal and elect humanity of Jesus Christ. There is a universalizing underneath in the doctrine of election in Barth’s theology, with the result that our focus is not on ourselves, as if we have some sort of inherent value or worth in se; but instead the realization is always present that we find our life and being in extra nos or outside of us, only as that extra enters into us by the gift of God in the grace who is the Christ.

The shift that happens, juxtaposed with a classical double predestinarian view, is that election first and foremost is about a doctrine of God; but a doctrine of God that can never be thought of apart from or abstracted out of His choice to not be God without us. In other words, in this reified doctrine our knowledge of God and selves is contingent always already upon God’s choice to be with us and for us in Christ. This transforms the way we think humanity, for one thing. In other words, we are unable to think about what genuine humanity is without first thinking about humanity in union with God in the Son’s union with us in the vicarious humanity of Christ.

One immediate consequence of this is that the way we think people is no longer from a class structure, or from the psychological vantage point that God loves some and not others (as the classical notion of election/reprobation leaves us with). As such, we are genuinely free to look out at others and recognize a humanity, in full, that God loves; a humanity, no matter how wretched (maybe as we think of ourselves) that is valuable precisely at the point that Jesus is the Yes and not the No for them and us. This is not to suggest that a blind eye is given to the sub-humanity that people continue to live in—because we love the darkness rather than the light—but it is to alert us to the fact, in the Barthian reification, that all people have inherent value, just because God first loved us that we might love Him. It is to recognize that even if people choose to reject the election freely offered to them in Christ, that because that election is not contingent upon their choice, but God’s, they live in suspension from the imago Dei who is the imago Christi (cf. Col. 1.15), and as such continue to have inherent value, and even capacity to say yes to God in correspondence to Jesus’s Yes for them. Here, we can agree with the evangelist that ‘God so loved the world, that whoever believes in Him will not perish but have everlasting life.’

The premise is that there is no person outside the reach/grace of God. A contemporary application of this might be directed Donald Trump’s way. Trump, by many sectors of people, and many Christians in fact, has come to be considered the scum of the earth. He is the target of untold ridicule and vitriolic attack. At base though, it ought to be recognized, that even Trump’s life is encompassed by the life of God in Jesus Christ; which is why we should continuously be praying for him. This is not to suggest that we can’t be critical of Trump’s policies, speech, and other negatives; but it is to suggest that in this critique what should be characteristic is one where we keep on recognizing what God does about Trump. That is, that Trump is valuable to God, as a person. Indeed, that God in Christ pledged His life for Trump’s, and at the very least our rhetoric ought to be seasoned with this reality of Grace; even in our critiques.

I think this represents one possible application of the implications of Barth’s doctrine of election. It ought to cause us to pause in our speech, at the very least. We ought to bear witness to Christ in our speech and act, even when we have people like Trump in front of us, or others we think of in ridiculing ways. We can be critical, like I noted, of Trump’s policies or even personality, but at the same time we can bear in mind that Jesus loves Trump, this I know, for the Bible tells me so. And I’m only using Trump as a symbolic example for anyone else we could fill in the blank with. What Barth’s doctrine of election does to me, in this sense, is it makes me continually cognizant of the fact that I am no different than Trump; or any of my enemies. Without God’s Grace, who is Christ for us, we would all sink into the sub-humanity we were born into. In other words, as Christ is the One for the many, the many come to have that in common; viz. that we are now all grounded in the One humanity of Jesus Christ. This does not mean we have anonymous brothers and sisters in Christ, at a spiritual level, but it does mean at a ‘carnal’ (de jure) level, that we share a universe with every other person who derives their value and worth from the same reality we do—Jesus Christ! This ought to do something in regard to the way we treat others (I’m preaching to myself).


[1] Barth, CD II/2:110.

[2] Greggs, Barth, Origen, and Universal Salvation, 25.

[3] Ibid., 26.

Karl Barth’s Reformulated Doctrine of Election, And Its Implications Towards the Way We Speak of Others; Including Donald Trump

Barth the non-Arminian, and the Particularity of each Individual in Salvation

I wanted to briefly highlight something in the theology of Karl Barth offered up by some commentary provided by Tom Greggs. Barth believed individual people had particularity, that they weren’t objectified and swallowed up in the mass (so to speak) of an ostensibly metaphysical humanity; i.e. the humanity of Christ. Instead, as Greggs notes, humans have their own particularity and pipebarthindividuality, particularly in the appropriation of salvation by faith, but only after the work has been done in Christ’s humanity for us (I’m somewhat reading in-between the lines a bit). Here is what Greggs writes on Barth’s theology of the Spirit, salvation, and the particularity of each individual person:

However, one must consider what the place of the Spirit is with regards to the individual for Barth. It is the Spirit through whom Jesus Christ calls an individual sinful person to the community of the Christian faith. The Spirit is thus the one who leads a person to conversion. Barth discusses this theme in his incomplete IV/4, in which he considers how it can happen in time that the one off event of Jesus Christ can become for certain people a renewing event. Barth concludes that this is a work of the Spirit who allows for the ‘here and now’ of each individual person. This work is such that it ‘does not entail the paralysing dismissal or absence of the human spirit, mind, knowledge and will’, but is a work in which the Spirit of God bears witness to the human spirit (as in Rom. 8.16). The Spirit reaches out to the specificity and particularity of each individual human.[1]

Note: some might want to argue that Barth sounds Arminian; that he seems to hold that each individual person has the power to reject or accept the grace of God for themselves based upon some sort of inherit particularity within themselves as human beings (even if that ‘power’ is said to be based upon a prevenient grace provided for by God, a “created grace”); as if human being is an abstract concept. But that would be mistaken! Barth’s theological anthropology knows nothing of what it means to be human in an abstract or non-Christological sense, just the opposite. For Barth, and this is why he avoids the semi-Augustinianism (when it comes to a theological anthropology) of Arminianism, the ground an d history of all human being is found in Christ’s elect humanity for all; as such the choice for salvation has been taken and made for humanity in the archetypal humanity of Jesus Christ. It is this history, this life lived by the Spirit, that the same Spirit, on mission from the humanity of Christ comes bearing gifts to each individual human; a gift that offers the individual person the real life opportunity to participate in the Yes of God in and through the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ, and find the telos and/or purpose for their life in His.

In other words, Barth’s theology here, far from being Arminian, doesn’t really attempt to answer the same types of causal questions that both classical Arminianism and Calvinism does. Barth works from God revealed in Jesus Christ rather than God and the decree[s].

[1] Tom Greggs, Barth, Origen, And Universal Salvation: Restoring Particularity (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 135-36.

Barth the non-Arminian, and the Particularity of each Individual in Salvation

Jesus Loves Me This I Know … But what is love?

Not surprisingly, for Karl Barth what it means for a human being to love first comes from what it means for God in Jesus Christ (enfleshed) to love. In Barth’s theology human love is not generated from some sort of deep abyss in the human soul; it is not self generated or directed; it is not correlative to anything in creaturely reality; it is instead, as are all things in Barth’s theology, found in (a blackwhitegrunewalddoctrine) of God, which conditions his (Barth’s) Christology, and hence, anthropology. Tom Greggs comments on how this is so in Barth’s theology with particular focus on the person and work of the Holy Spirit; he writes:

For Barth, the possibility of the human ability to love is found in Jesus Christ. Yet the actual founding of love in the human is a miracle of the Holy Spirit. Even in this love, there is only ever a correspondence to the love of God in Christ: love begins with God’s unique love for us, and it is only through this that one is able to measure the concept of love. Human loving must, therefore, be understood as an answer to the love of God for us. Under his section ‘The Holy Spirit and Christian Love’, Barth notes:

By the Holy Spirit the individual becomes free for existence in an active relationship with the other in which he is loved and finds that he may love in return. The one who is most deeply filled with the Holy Spirit is the one who is richest in love, and the one who is devoid of love necessarily betrays the fact that he is empty of the Spirit.

Thus, the Spirit provides the condition for the Christian to love, establishing the freedom to know that she is loved by Christ and may love, therefore, in return. Moreover, it is necessary first to know this love, which is revealed, rather than to make Christian love fit a preconceived category of love: true love is known only through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Again, one sees here the dual direction of the Spirit’s movement: He establishes the church in the identity of love; but this very identity calls for the other in order to love.[1]

As I recently opined on Facebook: “Loving Jesus is a product of being loved by him first,” which really is just a paraphrase of I John 4.19. But as we consider the implications of what we just read from Greggs things get a little risky! Did you catch what he was developing in regard to Barth’s theology of a Christ concentrated love? Love is not something that humans generate or discover, instead genuine love is a reality that is revealed in the Self-revelation and interpretation of God’s life for us in Christ (see Romans 5.8); a reality that is iterated in our lives as we come to participate in God’s life in union with Christ by the Holy Spirit.

Love in this frame comes directly from God’s life of love. It is a love that is sacrificial and for the other rather than generated from the self; it is ecstatic and for humans it is receptive through participation in God’s mediated life for us in Jesus Christ. This puts a bit of a damper on conceptions of love that are merely portraits of self-actualization at the expense of someone else (i.e. lust). It even puts a damper on religious or “Christian” conceptions of love that overly push certain types of emotional experiences as if that is what love primarily produces. Revealed love terminates in trust, sacrifice, service, and obedience (to God). It compels us to think about the other before ourselves

[1] Tom Greggs, Barth, Origen, And Universal Salvation (Oxford/NY: Oxford University Press, 2009), 138.

Jesus Loves Me This I Know … But what is love?

God is Salvation. The Idea of Two Classes of People Rather than One in Christ

I once wrote a post that touched upon what I will further elaborate on in this post; i.e. the idea that the classical/Augustinian concept of election has some very damaging consequences for thinking about humanity/people in general, and for thinking about salvation and a thus a doctrine of God in particular. Most people associate this kind of thinking—election for some to salvation and active (or even passive) reprobation for most to an eternal conscious tormented hell for the many—with John Calvin; but of course that would be too reductionistic. Yes, Calvin did hold to a double braziljesuspredestination, but he was only reflecting the dominate belief of his day inherited from the Augustinian/Latin heritage that shaped the whole of the Western (Roman Catholic and Protestant) church. It is this type of thinking that remains pervasive today, particularly in and among ‘conservative’ evangelical theology (think of the type of theology promoted by the popular Gospel Coalition); which itself is funded by the classical Reformed and/or what is known as Post-Reformed orthodoxy, and its categories (given definitive expression in the Westminster Confession of Faith and its Longer/Shorter catechisms). For some reason it is this expression (conscious or not) that is considered the only orthodox way for rigorously understanding things salvific for evangelicals (at least for many; I obviously generalize here). For some reason there is something sacrosanct about thinking about Divinely determined classes of people; the elect and reprobate; the saved and the damned. And unfortunately, I would contend, when this perspective is adopted it can have a deleterious effect upon those who view the world this way. Even at an unconscious level, when this view is allowed to inform people’s daily lives as the reality, even at a sub-conscious level, we start looking at people, at the massa of humanity with harder tones rather than softer ones; divisive and class oriented even. We begin to use this lens, at an ethical level, to view the world as us and them; using this lens to explain why most of the world seems like it is living like hell because from our perspective (if we hold to this type of determinist perception of reality) most of this world is in fact the damned; that’s just who they are (in their very being without any hope otherwise), and thus that’s just what they do—i.e. live like hell.

But Jesus, and the Gospel operate from a different metaphysic, from a different doctrine of creation, from a different anthropology, from a different soteriology, from a different doctrine of God and election (I would contend). Tom Greggs (University of Aberdeen professor) agrees with me, and gets at this in a much more elegant and precise way than me; he writes (as he explains the motivation for his book, which I’m quoting from here):

The primary motivation for engaging in this research is to understand salvation better. In an age in which fundamentalism is being so loudly articulated, the divisive and binary nature of certain understandings of salvation is being clearly heard. The sense that being a member of a community of faith separates and divides is not only heard in sermons but also in the explosion of bombs directed at causing terror for those unbelievers who await the terrors of hell anyway. It is, after all, only a short step from stating that God wills eternal terror for those opposed to His will and uses that terror in the world among those understood to be against God’s will in order to influence their decision-making in the present. Salvation needs, therefore, to be expressed in a way which does not divide humanity into binary groupings, but which allows for a simultaneous discussion of the salvific plan of God for all humanity as well as those who profess faith. In an age of multiculturalism in which our neighbours are people of many faiths and none, this is of paramount importance.

The division of humanity into saved or damned, elect or reject, awaiting heaven or hell is not only dangerous in its implications for the way in which humanity is seen, but it is also dangerous in terms of its doctrine of God: it presents a doctrine of God in which the will of God is separated from His love, or else is flouted by the sinful choices of humans, or else is cajoled into conditional love (which is no love at all) by the faith of humans. This can lead to an almost modalist approach to the doctrine of God: the second and third persons of the Trinity can seem to come to exist to save humanity from its failings. Moreover, such a view of salvation imprisons God in human constructs of justice and love, creating in God the failings all too evident in humanity (to love only when first we are loved, wrath etc.) instead of allowing the doctrine of God to define these points. God is salvation: it is not simply an action He performs; this action is an act in which one can understand His being. Thus, the contrary is also true: if one fails to understand salvation, one will fail to understand God.[1]

It is true that the Bible itself speaks of ‘those being saved’ and ‘those being destroyed’ (as active realities, see I Corinthians 1.18 etc.), but it does not do so in static or absolute ways; nor does it do so in metaphysical ways. In other words, the conditions for dynamism and change relative to one’s personal orientation to the Gospel remain open for all ‘who will’ (to use the Bible’s language cf. Jn 3.16).

Theologically the Bible’s disclosure is focused upon Jesus Christ (cf. Jn 5.39) in rather intense, and dare I say ‘principial’ ways. If we think from the logic of the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ, if we think from the hypostatic union and the Chalcedonian pattern of God and humanity unified fully in the eternal Son, Jesus Christ (unio personalis); we will have to re-think the binaries spoken of above, we will have to rethink the Augustinian division of an elect status of people over against an reprobate people. If we allow Jesus Christ, and the reality of his life as Theanthropos (the ‘God-man’) to impose itself upon our thought patterns we will have to think God’s election/reprobation from there; in particular from Christ’s vicarious humanity in-the-stead of and representative of all humanity. If we do this we will not look out at humanity as a great abstract mass, some of whom God has chosen to redeem, and others he has arbitrarily chosen to damn to eternal hell. Instead we will look out on the mass of humanity from the concrete humanity of God in Jesus Christ; we will think universally and globally about humanity from the particularity of God’s humanity given for us in the eternal Son’s choice to be for us and with us as one of us, instead of against us. We will think of all of humanity, not in principle, but in concrete fact from God’s love (cf. Rom 5.8); as if the mass of humanity is God’s humanity (cf. Acts 20.28) taken up in the Son (Phil. 2.5-8; II Cor 5.21)—the Son who the Father said ‘is dearly beloved.’

Theology, like any ideas, has a creeping effect in our lives. It is given expression in manifest, and often unconscious or un-intentional ways. There are examples of how thinking about humanity in two different classes gets expressed; one example can be as extreme as apartheid in South Africa (which was in many ways funded by the importation of Dutch Reformed theology into its civil and governmental life and policies). But more typically it can be expressed more subtly in our daily lives by having less compassion for people than we ought; this ‘less compassion’ though can lead to sinister things like nationalism so on and so forth.

Ultimately the problem with viewing humanity this way, though, is that it is not coordinate with the Gospel or God’s life revealed in Christ. God is for humanity in all-inclusive ways, even if his way remains exclusive, but only because that is limited to his life in the Son; thus he remains the only way, but he remains the only way for all not some. Ultimately if we think from the Gospel, from Jesus, we will understand that what it means to be human is ontologically grounded in Jesus Christ’s humanity; that his humanity grounds all of humanity. And that because he has united that humanity to his divine life in the Triune life, all of humanity is represented before the Father; which leads to the reality that all of humanity has the opening and invitation to participate in the life that God has given for them in his own life in the Son’s humanity. Our job, as Christians then, is to bear witness as ambassadors to the world of what true humanity looks like (i.e. their humanity too) as it actively participates in and from the Son’s real life humanity for them, for us.

[1] Tom Greggs, Barth, Origen, and Universal Salvation: Restoring Particularity (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 2-3.

God is Salvation. The Idea of Two Classes of People Rather than One in Christ