Tuesday, March 08, 2011

What Wins in your Doctrine of Election?

When it comes to the doctrine of election, Barth says, 'the first and last word is Yes and not No.' In this insistence Barth recovers an understanding of God's grace that does not need sin to be appreciated, and of God's glory that does not need hell in order to be perceived. I suppose this is little more than a teaser, but here's a excursus (or footnote) that Barth provides at the beginning of his treatment:
We must establish this at the outset because, as the “doctrine of predestination”, the doctrine of the divine election of grace has fallen under something of a shadow during the course of its history. The shadow has become so pronounced that when one mentions the terms “election of grace” or “predestination” one must expect to awaken in one's hearers or readers associations which necessarily confuse and thus make impossible the necessary recognition of the great truth with which we have to do at this point.

The association may be resentment against the “pathetic inhumanity” of the doctrine (as in Max Weber...), or perhaps against the danger of dialectical ambiguity, or worse than both these, against what we mentioned earlier: the idea that in this matter we are dealing only with an abstract and neutral theorem.

If we glance at the history of the doctrine, even as presented by its greatest and profoundest exponents, we cannot simply dismiss these associations as completely without foundation. Everywhere this shadow is in the ascendancy.

A good deal has, in fact, been said in such a way as to give rise to confusion, to savage hostility, to well-meant but fatal misrepresentations of what ought to be received, indeed to a whole mass of misunderstanding and indifference with regard to the doctrine.

“I may go to hell, but such a God (as that of the Calvinistic teaching) will never command my respect” — that was the cry of John Milton..., and openly or secretly how many others have made some similar utterance...?

The task which confronts us is rather a critical one, even in face of the very best tradition.... If the doctrine is to shed forth its light, then the shadow must be dispersed. The dispersing of this shadow will be our definite objective in the polemical discussions throughout this whole chapter.

We cannot be too soon, or too radical, in the opposition which we must offer to the classical tradition, or rather in the attempt to do justice to the particular and justifiable and necessary intention which underlies that tradition.

And we introduce the first and most radical point with our thesis that the doctrine of election must be understood quite definitely and unequivocally as Gospel; that it is not something neutral on the yonder side of Yes and No; that it is not No but Yes; that it is not Yes and No, but in its substance, in the origin and scope of its utterance, it is altogether Yes.

Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II/2, 15, citing M. Weber

Notice that this is not about universal salvation, but about what takes logical (or better, theological) precedence in our understanding of things. It has been all too common in evangelical rhetoric for the doctrines of election and the doctrines of sin to react so strongly to the rhetoric of pluralism and moral relativity that they in turn emphasize judgment and sin to such an extent that sin and damnation become not just realities we must face up to but integral and necessary components of God Himself. It is as if God's glory could only be known if there were an opposition to it. It is as if sin were authored by God so that grace could abound. Barth does not want to say there is no sin or judgment, but wants to get first things first.

God's 'No' is known in light of God's 'Yes', and not vice versa. There is a 'No', but the 'Yes' is before it and after it, prevailing on both sides in the 'Nevertheless' that comes in Jesus Christ. And if Jesus indeed reveals God to us, we need to not go looking for another God behind His back.

Whatever the doctrine of election entails, it does not ask us to picture a God behind the one revealed in Jesus who elects some to damnation so that His glory may be appreciated by those elected to salvation. God needs no such thing for His glory to be known or appreciated. In fact, from Jesus we get the sense that His glory is in that He wants no such thing either.

Seen in this way, we begin to wonder what 'wins' in our doctrines of election? If the 'No' is somehow necessary for the 'Yes' to be known, then are we not stuck in a doctrine that puts evil alongside God, or worse, puts it above Him?

I would be curious to know if prominent 'new calvinists' have ever read Barth on this, because they often seem unaware of the fact that something close to and yet surpassing Calvin doctrine of predestination is actually out there.

1 comment:

Dale said...

Whatever the doctrine of election entails, it does not ask us to picture a God behind the one revealed in Jesus who elects some to damnation so that His glory may be appreciated by those elected to salvation. God needs no such thing for His glory to be known or appreciated. In fact, from Jesus we get the sense that His glory is in that He wants no such thing either.

wow. very insightful and helpful. thanks for this jon.