Barth III: Election

Barth’s greatest theological contribution in my opinion, beyond his dialectical-Revelation qua encounter, is his re-interpretation of the great (Calvinist) theme of election.

The theme of election flows strongly from the Hebrew scriptures through the Christian NT. While Luther focused his theology on the battle between Law and Grace and the Freedom of the Will/Individual–symbolized in his personal stand against the Papacy–Calvin honed in on the notion of election, of a people called out and chosen by God.

Calvin however turned this election into a complete bifurcated eternally chosen set of realities.  The helpful acronym TULIP expresses his view (and that of Classical Reformed Theology generally).   Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement (meaning Christ only died for the elect), Irresistible Grace, and Perseverance of the Saints.  In other words God is totally in charge of everything and all humans can do of their own will is sin and rightfully earn their place of damnation.

Not so good in other words.  Otherwise known as double predestination:  predestined to either heaven or hell.  The majority of humans (massa damnata) headed to perdition to show God’s justice and majesty.  A select (very select) few rescued to show God’s mercy.  Ultra-Augustinian theology.

But as opposed to Luther, Calvin stressed that discipline/Law (for the already saved not as a way to earn salvation) were good and healthy things.  Hence the Protestant Work ethic.  A “monasticism” of the world as it is sometimes called:  hard work, thrift, sobriety, etc.  Good bourgeoisie virtues.  [see Max Weber on the link between the Prot. Work Ethic and Capitalism].

Now what Barth did was to take the great theme of election and broaden it.  Instead of the cold logic of Calvin’s deity, Barth saw a dialectical God of Love.  Following on a theme in Luther actually (not Calvin), Barth talks of the Two Hands of God:  the one of Justice/Judgment, the Other of Mercy.

In the dialectic, God’s YES and God’s NO.  God’s NO to the World, to the world of sin, human arrogance, selfishness, ignorance, racism, petty hatreds and stupidity is seen in the Cross.  God takes all those realities upon the Divine Character bodily and dies.  Humans see what their world does, what their sin does–it literally kills God.

The YES is the offer of election, predestined to life in God.  Barth was not a univeralist–i.e. did not believe all people are universally saved–but his ideas do lean in that direction.  Election is the Divine embracing the created sphere and bringing it to fulfillment.

He was still Christo-centric (really Christomonistic) in a way that my theology is not. At least not for those outside the Christian path. For those inside that path already, I find his theology deeply life-giving and profound.  A real well of grace that opens up a way towards preaching, church life, ministries, and so on.

Where it generally is poor in my estimation, is inter-religious dialogue.

Though Barth was not entirely political in his theology, his thought really opens up the way towards later moves in Christian theology (along with Dietrich Bonhoeffer):  namely liberation theology, the “new” evangelicalism, postliberalism, even emergent/emerging theologies.  Through his contemporary and “Catholic cousin” Hans Balthasar, Barth-like ideas have strongly influenced Vatican II and post-Vatican II Roman Catholic theology as well.  The current Pope is a major admirer of Balthasar.

Published in: on January 3, 2008 at 4:47 pm  Leave a Comment  
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