The electing God: Barth and beyond

Karl Barth - the Answer is JesusEugene Rogers, in his book Sexuality and the Christian Body (which I’m currently reading), has an interesting discussion of Karl Barth’s doctrine of election. I don’t have any particular deep conclusions to draw from it: I just found it fascinating and stimulating, and wanted to share some of it in this post.

Rogers begins by describing the central place that this topic has in Barth’s theology:

Barth’s most famous and successful innovation in all the Church Dogmatics is his reformulation of the doctrine of election. Barth diagnoses traditional doctrines of election as suffering under a twofold abstraction: an unknown electing God, a Deus absconditus whose ways are past finding out, whose freedom abstracts from love, and whose character abstracts from the revelation in Jesus Christ; and an unknown elected human being, the object of God’s caprice and therefore at sea. (p.163)

He continues by quoting Barth himself:

In the doctrine of predestination we have to do with the understanding both of God and of the human being in particular: in the particular relationship in which God is the true God and the human being the true human being.

[The doctrine of election] must begin concretely with the acknowledgment of Jesus Christ as both the electing God and the elected human being. (Church Dogmatics II/2, 76; emphasis Rogers’) (p.164)

It is this profoundly christocentric approach to election that enables Barth to subvert the traditional Calvinist account of “reprobation”: the teaching, rejected by Lutherans (among others), that God eternally elects the unsaved to damnation.

Barth reformulates the doctrine of election by taking up all the traditional examples of individual elect and rejected human beings and even animals, setting them into pairs, and referring both, the elected and the rejected member, to Jesus Christ as their typological reference, since he is elect and the rejected human being in one, the rejected human being elected. It is a glorious change of subject from the usual elect-and-reprobate division, a brilliant unasking of the question. All the things the orthodox predestinarians said are true, even about reprobation – if only they all apply first and paradigmatically not to individual human beings, but to Jesus Christ, and to others only “in him.” (p.164)

I love that phrase, “a brilliant unasking of the question”. Rogers continues by describing Barth’s “litany” of such predestined pairs:

Barth finds pairs of elect and rejected everywhere in the Bible, all pointing to the rejected one elected, Jesus Christ. […] So we hear of the following pairs: Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Rachel and Leah, Ephraim and Manasseh, Tamar and Judah, Perez and Serah, the offering goat and the scapegoat, the slain bird and the released bird, Saul and David, the man of God of Judah and the Prophet from Bethel, and finally Judas and Paul.

The strength of this approach is that it “gives one a taste for rich biblical exegesis, from Cain and Abel to Judas and Paul,” and encourages a “relentless christocentric focus.” However, it has its limitations:

It does better with character than with plot. It does better with dialectic than with complication. It does better with individuals or groups treated individualistically, than with individuals in community. Even as it evokes and incorporates biblical narratives as no theologian has done since Luther, it also suppresses and flattens parts of them. (p.165)

Specifically, Barth’s dialectical approach can fail to deal with the richness of the social context in which his pairs were situated:

It does not tell Christians how to talk about the means by which God works among others — third parties, circumstances, communities — to hold up the twinned pairs for display. Think of Rebecca tricking Isaac into blessing Jacob, Jonathan allying himself with David, the costuming of Tamar lying in wait for Judah, the dozens or thousands who surround and support the pairs. Barth can evoke these details — but he cannot exploit them. (p.165)

To account for these elements of the biblical narrative, Rogers argues, we need to to take greater account of the Holy Spirit, “that trinitarian person to whom Christians appropriate the movements of hearts, the providence of circumstances, and the gathering of communities, who blows where it wills, and thus resists reduction into twofold categories, however skillfully plied” (p.165).

What we want is not to reject Barth’s christocentric pair-forming, but to supplement that with:

…the overplus that the Spirit supplies, never apart from the Father and the Son, but enriching and celebrating them. It is the Spirit to whom Christians appropriate the plots and turns of biblical narrative, the circumstances and communities of biblical characters, the secondary causes that move their hearts in this world. Barth is richly open for this sort of elaboration, though he does not pursue it. (pp.165f.)

Rogers quotes with approval Robert Jenson’s proposal that Barth’s great insight that “Jesus is the electing God” needs to be supplemented by another: “the Holy Spirit is the electing God.” 

This would reduce the tendency to force complex biblical narratives (with their “lots of detail and lots of characters and lots of complication”) into a formulaic structure:

It would mean a greater openness to the complications and details of the stories, the ways in which the Spirit moves not just pairs of people, but the communities and environments around them, to construct typological relationships, so that supporting actors and circumstances and growth and reversal and plot come into play — or, to put it into more theological language, so that one attends more to community or Church and providence and sanctification and resurrection, not just “the rejected” and “the elect.” (p.168)

That’s not, Rogers emphasises once again, to reject what Barth has done in his own work, but to develop it further:

I am not proposing to give up the typological majesty of Cain and Abel, sacrifice and scapegoat, Sarah and Hagar, Jacob and Esau, Leah and Rachel, David and Saul, Judas and Paul. But I am proposing that a reference to the Spirit helps Christian theologians to complicate the typology in a way at once more biblical, more communitarian or ecclesial, and more trinitarian in execution as well as in program.

But when we read about Jacob and Esau, Leah and Rachel, David and Saul, we also need to be taking into account “Rebecca and Laban and Jonathan”. To fail to do so “sheers the biblical stories of half their characters and most of their circumstances, the Spirit’s painful, complex work.”

As I said at the start of this post, I don’t have anything particularly to add to what Rogers is saying here (and nor am I going into a discussion of the wider thesis of his book at this stage). I found his account of Barth’s theology of election, particularly Barth’s reading of all those biblical “pairs” as types for the rejected-and-elected Christ, exciting and stimulating, but I was also grateful for Rogers’ further development into appreciating the rich complexity of the Holy Spirit’s work among the “supporting cast” – a.k.a. the People of God. Both these are things which will enrich my own reading of the Bible.

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