The Foundation of Grace

(We continue our examination of Karl Barth’s doctrine of election. Click here for part one. Click here for part 2.)

The foundation we lay for a building determines the kind of structure we build. If the foundation is made of poor materials, the building will collapse. If the foundation is too small, the building cannot be any larger. And if the foundation is not deep, the building cannot be tall.

In the second subsection of Church Dogmatics II/2, Barth considers the proper foundation for the doctrine of election. In his discussion he considers and rejects four approaches:

  1. A pre-existing theological system. Barth is critical of Lorraine Boettner’s 1932 book “The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination” which set out to explain and defend the Reformed teaching on election. Barth argues that a truly Reformed doctrine will be based not on an established system, but on the Scriptures.
  2. The usefulness of the doctrine. Barth argues that a doctrine of election may be pastorally useful in giving comfort and assurance to believers. However, any such usefulness should be the result and not the starting place of a biblical doctrine of election.
  3. Experience. Some people accept the gospel with faith and others reject it. Barth argues that a doctrine of election based on this observation of experience is actually based on a human decision of who is chosen and who is rejected rather than on God’s decision.
  4. God’s freedom to do whatever he wants. Barth argues that this is a dangerous abstraction of the character of God. God’s true freedom is not demonstrated in a potential to make this or that decision, but in his actual decisions revealed in the Scriptures.

Barth argues that a truly Reformed doctrine will be based not on an established system, but on the Scriptures.

Having rejected these approaches Barth begins to lay the foundation for his doctrine of election based on the testimony of the Scriptures which point to the Word of God. Barth argues that God is not an abstract God, a God in general, but a quite specific and particular God who reveals himself in his choices. He has chosen to be the God of Israel, the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob. God has chosen this people to be a light to the Gentiles. The history of Israel, however, illustrates a number of further choices within this people: the tribe of Judah, the line of David, the coming Messiah. And at the end of this history is not a chosen race or a chosen family, but a chosen human being: Jesus Christ, the son of Abraham, the son of David. Barth concludes, “If we would know what election is, what it is to be elected by God, then we must look away from all others, and excluding all side-glances or secondary thoughts we must look only upon the name of Jesus Christ.”

This then is the foundation for Barth’s doctrine of election: Jesus Christ who reveals not only the God who chooses but also the human being who is chosen.

“If we would know what election is … we must look only upon the name of Jesus Christ.”

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