“Here be dragons”. This phrase refers to the practice of medieval map makers of drawing dragons and sea serpents in the uncharted areas at the edge of the map. For many people this is where the doctrine of election belongs on the theological map: on the edge, in the unexplored areas where dangerous terms like “predestination”, “reprobation” and “supralapsarian” lurk.
In his first subsection on the doctrine of election called “The Orientation of the Doctrine” Barth declares his intention to place it in a more central location on the theological map. He does this in the following ways:
- The doctrine of election is part of Barth’s doctrine of God. In the first part volume of the second volume of the doctrine of God, Barth has described who God is in himself. He is the God who loves in perfect freedom. In this second part volume Barth describes who God is towards us. He is the God who chooses us in Christ. In this way Barth places the doctrine of election where he thinks it belongs, at the very centre of things, before his discussions on creation, reconciliation and redemption. In Barth’s view, God’s grace is not a response to our fall into sin, a plan B when plan A failed. Instead, God’s grace revealed in his election is his purpose for creating and saving us.
- The link between who God is in himself and who he is towards us is the name Jesus Christ. We see who God is in himself most clearly in the life and works of Jesus Christ. We also see who God is towards us in the same way. Before God chose us, he chose his Son. Only subsequently has God chosen in his Son the people whom the Son represents. Because Jesus Christ is truly divine, he reveals himself as the God who has chosen to belong to us. But because he is truly human, he reveals himself as the true human being who belongs to God. This relationship of belonging is the covenant, and the covenant revealed in God’s choice of us in Christ shows that God is love and that God is free. God is towards us the same as he is in himself. The God who loves in perfect freedom.
- That God has chosen us in Jesus Christ is the sum total of the gospel, the good news of God. It is not something to fear. It is not something to banish to the wastelands of theology or preaching. It is something to rejoice in, something to proclaim out loud. God’s election is his grace and his grace is his initiative in making the first move towards us, and not meeting us half-way as if we can co-operate him, but meeting us in his Son in our state of rebellion and sin. If God’s choice hints at a rejection that also takes place, his choice is only light, not a mix of light and dark. The doctrine of election is not a message of hope and a message of despair. It is the message of our only hope in Jesus Christ.
- The doctrine of election reveals and affirms God’s freedom, his mystery and his righteousness. We cannot tell God what he must do. We cannot fully understand what he has done. But ultimately we must confess that all that he does is good and right. As Barth surveys the different Church fathers of the past, Augustine, Luther, Calvin among others, these are the truths that they have tried to affirm in explaining and defending the doctrine of election to more or less success. God’s freedom, his mystery, and his righteousness will then become for Barth the criteria by which he will judge and attempt to form a biblical doctrine of election in harmony with the Word of God who is Jesus Christ.
In conclusion, Barth orients the doctrine of election not in the corners of the theological map, but at its very heart, in the nature of God. The doctrine of election reveals God’s purpose in creating, reconciling and redeeming humanity. Here at the heart of the map we find no dragons, but only the compass of theology which directs all thought and speech about God, Jesus Christ.
(This post is the second part of a series on Barth’s doctrine of election. If you missed the first part you can find it here)