Karl Barth

I have just posted a guest post (at my other blog Behind The Back) by Myk Habets on Thomas Torrance’s Framing of Natural Theology through John Calvin & Karl Barth (my title). This is quite good, and would’ve fit in quite well with Travis’ recent Barth Blog Conference. For anyone interested in such things come give it a read, give some feedback, I’m sure Myk would be happy to respond back. See you there . . .

It is no secret that this blog, in many ways, is shaped by Thomas F. Torrance’s influences. I have “known” T. F. for only the last three years, and I’m still getting to know him 😉 , and everything that I’ve read of his has been a TTorrance_smll“page-turner.” Almost everything I see him saying resonates with my own sense and theological predisposition; I’m obviously a great fan. Not only that, but we even have our very own T. F. Torrance scholar here at TEC, in the person of Dr. Myk Habets (who recently guest-posted some poetry for us). I say all this, because — and I was actually and naively unaware of this, until a few months ago — I have been becoming more and more aware that T. F. Torrance (I knew about Barth) is not a trusted source for many a theologian out there. Here is an example provided by Dr. Michael Haykin, he recently said this at his blog about Barth and Torrance, comparing B and T with Warfield:

. . . to take one example of comparison between Warfield and Barth/Torrance: when the latter read the Fathers, they frequently read them wrongly, out of context and with their own agenda so that the Fathers end up sounding like neo-orthodox before their time. T.F. Torrance’s study of grace in the Apostolic Fathers is very one-sided and fails to aprpeciate [sic] texts like the Letter to Diognetus, while his reading of Nazianzen (I am thinking of his article on Greg Naz and Calvin on the Trinity) is accepted by few patristic scholars. Warfield, on the other hand, read the Fathers well, partly because of his training as a NT scholar, and devotes monographs to their study. This rich understanding of historical theology informs his systematic study and forms the subsoil out of which he develops a rich overview of the Christian Faith. My problem with Barth and Torrance is that I find I cannot trust them when they are doing patristics, and that makes me suspicious of their interpretation of holy Scripture. (taken from: here)

I can understand his reticence, and I find his transparency commendable. But at the same time, come on! Certainly Barth and Torrance took liberty in some of their readings of the Patristics, but what one calls liberty, another calls interpretation. In other words, isn’t this the work of scholarship, to read and interpret, reconstruct and vivify folks from the past? This happens all the time in theological academia, Haykin makes it sound like there is a static norm and threshold of scholarship that must be met, before any particular scholar can be taken seriously. Come on! Scholarship is fluid, views are fluid, interpretations are fluid (I’m not a relativist 😉 ). To say, as Haykin does, that he cannot trust folks like Torrance — which is his perrogative, and that’s fine — and his interpretation of scripture, is too much of a generalization to take seriously. All I see Haykin, and others doing, is protesting the particular metaphysics that folks like Barth and Torrance  (click on the hyper-link to see a good intro to this kind of ‘metaphysics’ done by Kevin Davis) were forwarding (contra the classic kind, that I presume Haykin is committed to). What Haykin does is engage a genetic fallacy, by basically stating that anything that comes from Barth and Torrance is suspect simply because it is coming from Barth and Torrance.

What I appreciate about Torrance is simply his constructive theological creativity; it is his ideas, it is his unique brand of theology. I appreciate him because I think that what he communicates (by-and-large, I don’t agree with everything that comes from TFT) provides some great explanatory power per the ‘inner logic’ implicit in scripture (sola scriptura!). I would like to see Haykin, and folks like him (the prejudice), critique the thought and material content of TFT’s broader theological project versus engaging in sweeping generalization when it comes to Barth and/or Torrance.

A little rant, sorry. Btw, over at his blog, Haykin does see Barth and Torrance as necessary dialogue partners, but I’m afraid that this just means that they serve as “those other guys, over there” foils for magnifying real teachers of truth (like Warfield represents for Haykin). I know nothing of Dr. Haykin, except for what I just read over at his blog, so hopefully I’m completely off base here.

The real advance has obviously been made when we come to the INSTITUTIO of 1559, in which unio cum Christo [union with Christ] has become the common denominator under which Calvin tried to range his whole doctrine of the appropriation of the salvation achieved and revealed in Christ. For now in the Third Book, before he can speak of faith, of conversion and renewal, of the vita hominis christiani, of abnegatio nostri as its sum, of the necessary bearing of the cross, of the relation between this and the future life, then — and only then — of justification, of Christian freedom and prayer, of eternal election as the ulitmate presupposition of the whole, and finally of the future resurrection, according to the view attained in 1559 he has first to make it plain how it can come about at all that what God has done for us in Christ, as declared in the Second Book, can apply to us and be effective for us. The answer given in the noteworthy opening chapter of the Third Book is to the effect that it comes about through the arcana operatio Spiritus, which consists in the fact that Christ Himself, intead of being extra nos, outside the man separated from Him and therefore irrelevant to us, becomes ours and takes up His abode in us, we for our part being implanted into Him (Rom. 11:17) and putting Him on (Gal. 3:27). (Karl Barth CD 4.3.2, 550-51 cited by Charles Partee, The Theology of John Calvin, 195)


Everyone needs to go to Scott’s; he has a really good post unfolding what we *EC’s* think about Supralapsarianism and ‘election’ that is conditioned in Christ.

Go here: Evangelical Calvinism — Part 3: Election

I am going to provide three posts in a row on Karl Barth’s view of election; all three are second hand commentary, either describing his view, and/or synthesizing his view with a little critique thrown in for good measure.

Here at TEC, I am an advocate for Barth’s framing of election (but not without some helpful nuancing provided by the Scot’s Confession; which I have been introduced to through T. F. Torrance — I will be talking about this in much more detail, probably in my next postings [I will be appealing to an article by Myk Habets to make some of my points]), and thus I think this is important to describe in order for you to know where I am coming from. Some folks who I think fit within the “Evangelical Calvinist” camp (like Ron Frost), follow a more classically framed view of election (i.e. from the infralapsarian and hypothetical universalist side of things); I will have to try and nuance why I think some of these folks still fit within the “Evangelical” camp, at a later date.

You may want to read Holmes introduction first (before this one):

Holmes on Barth’s Election

then come back to this one or my other posting for the day.


Here is a good reflection and assimilation of Barth’s view on the extent of the atonement (and other things):

With Barth I hold that through the sacrifice of Christ on the cross and his glorious resurrection from the grave the human situation has been irrevocably altered. The powers of sin, death, and hell have been decisively vanquished, though they continue to resist the advance of the kingdom of God through the power of the lie. All people of, irrespective of their moral and spiritual state, are claimed for the kingdom, but only some respond in faith and obedience. Christ has reconciled and justified the whole human race but in principle (de jure), not in fact (de facto) except for those who believe. All are heirs to the kingdom, but not all become members of the church of Christ. The treasure in the field is there for all, but only those benefit who give up everything to attain it (Mt 13:44). The gates of the prison in which we find ourselves are now open, but only those who rise up and walk through these gates to freedom are truly free.

. . . Predestination is not something finalized in the past but something realized in the present and consummated in the future. We can resist and deny our predestination, but we cannot permanently thwart the stream of God’s irresistable grace. We will ultimately be brought into submission, though not necessarily into salvation. Yet predestination means life even though we may choose death. Predestination does not necessarily eventuate in fellowship with Christ, but it does mean that every person is brought into inescapable relatedness to Christ. . . . (Donald Bloesch,” Jesus Christ: Savior & Lord, 169)

Just a few points. This view on election, the extent of the atonement, and predestination certainly spins the classical understanding of such things; and I think ‘spins’ it in a way that is much more faithful to the ‘evangelical’ categories found in scripture. It makes Jesus the center of election and reprobation. It assumes that Jesus is ‘real humanity’, both in its ‘reprobate’ state, as well as its ‘elect’. Jesus becomes man’s “reprobation” at the cross, as He also becomes the “elect” at the resurrection (and logically before). All humanity, in this view is ‘elect’, objectively, as they are represented by what Christ did for all of them at the cross; now ‘elect’ humanity must choose to recognize their new status as reconciled through Christ unto the Father by the Holy Spirit (see II Cor. 5), or not!

This kind of thinking runs counter to framing the election/reprobation discussion around particular people, instead it focuses on THE GOD-MAN, JESUS CHRIST!

Donald Bloesch says:

It is interesting to compare Calvin and Barth on this subject. Calvin too sees Christ as the Mediator even before his condescension in human form. He too sees Jesus Christ as containing within himself everything that will be ours in a future redemption. He too believes that Christ had accomplished everything necessary for our salvation, that his sacrifice was definitive and complete. He can even declare that in the death of Christ we have “the complete fulfillment of salvation” and that we “have been born anew” through the resurrection of Christ. Both theologians understand divine election to precede the decision of faith and even the fall of man; yet Calvin is more emphatic than Barth that God’s electing grace will invariably give rise to faith. In Calvin’s view those who benefit from the election and atonement of Christ are the elect people of God, the community of the faithful. For Barth the benefits of the atonement extend to all, though not all apprehend or perceive. For Calvin, Christ is the mediator of the eternal decree of election; whereas for Barth, Christ is both the Elector and the Elected One, who includes within himself the totality of mankind. For Calvin, predestination realizes its goal only in the response of faith; whereas for Barth, predestination has reached its goal in Jesus Christ, though its reality and efficacy are not yet manifest in all those who belong to him. For Calvin, personal faith is the instrument or means by which divine election and justification are effected in the lives of men; for Barth, faith is more properly a revelatory sign and consequence of our election and salvation. Although Calvin seeks to make predestination correlative with faith, both men betray a decidedly objectivistic bent, since the decree of predestination is enacted and completed in the eternal counsel of God, though they both insist that what has been decreed must be worked out and made manifest in history. Barth in trying to underline the dynamic character of predestination can even say that though it is a “completed work . . . it is not an exhausted work, a work which is behind us. On the contrary, it is a work which still takes place in all its fullness today.”

While both theologians maintain that the Christian can have assurance of his election and salvation, Barth’s position that we can be certain only of Christ’s faithfulness to us but not of our faithfulness to Christ tends to conflict with the Calvinist doctrine of eternal security. Barth would never say, however, that people can fall out of the sphere of God’s grace and goodness, though he does affirm the ever-present but incomprehensible possibility of fall away from the path marked out by grace.

The crucial difference between the two men is that Calvin adheres to particular election and redemption while Barth affirms the universality and all-inclusiveness of the electing and reconciling work of God. The doctrine of “limited atonement,” a hallmark of Calvinist orthodoxy, is definitely contradicted by Barth, and here can be seen his affinity to Luther and Wesley. In Calvin all is of grace, but grace is not for all. In Luther and Wesley all is of grace and grace is for all, but not all are for grace. In Barth grace is the source of all creaturely being and goes out to all, but every man is set against grace. Yet every man is caught up in the movement of grace even in the case where there is continued opposition to Christ. At the same time those who defy grace are claimed by grace and remain objects of grace despite their contumacy and folly. The act of turning away from grace is for Barth impossible and it would seem an impermanent condition, since no man can escape from or overturn the all-embracing love and grace of a sovereign God. (Donald Bloesch, “Jesus Is Victor!: Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Salvation,” 70-71)

The following is Stephen Holmes describing an account of Karl Barth’s view of election. I am going to simply quote Holmes on Barth, and later, when I have time, I will interact with some of the strengths and weaknesses provided by Barth’s viewpoint (for the most part I see strengths). As you read this account you will note that Barth basically re-works some of the classical theistic/Reformed categories on double-predestination, and ends up with a more faithful Christocentric focus, in my view. Anyway here is Holmes on Barth:

Famously, Barth will discuss the election of particular human beings only after considering the election of the community in its twofold form, Israel and the Church. In willing to be gracious in the particular way God in fact wills to be gracious, the Incarnation of the Divine Son, there is both a ‘Yes’ and a ‘No’, election and reprobation. God elects for humanity life, salvation, forgiveness, hope; for himself he elects death, perdition, even as the Creed has said, hell. This self-reprobation of God is indeed the primary referent of the doctrine of election, in that God’s determination of himself is formally if not materially more basic than his determination of the creature, and so is considered first by Barth. In the eternal election of grace, which is to say in Jesus Christ, God surrenders his own impassibility, embraces the darkness that he was without—and indeed impervious to—until he willed that it should be otherwise. ‘He declared Himself guilty of the contradiction against Himself in which man was involved . . . He made Himself the object of the wrath and judgment to which man had brought himself . . . He took upon Himself the rejection which man had deserved. So says Barth. The apostle put it more succinctly: ‘He became sin for us.’ This is the full content of the divine judgment, of the ‘No’ that is spoken over the evil of the world and of human beings. God elects for himself the consequences of that ‘No’, in saying ‘Yes’ to, that is, in electing, us. That is the whole content of the double decree, the whole content of the ‘Yes’ and the ‘No’ that God pronounces as one word, the whole content the election of grace.

What of our election? We are elected ‘in him’, but not immediately. Our election in Chirst is mediated by the elect community. There is here a high ecclesiology: the Church is not the post factum conglomeration—or even communion—of those who have been elected in Christ; rather, there is a historical community which forms the context for the particular environment of Jesus Christ, and as such is called to witness to him. Just as the single election of Jesus Christ has a twofold form, a ‘Yes’ and a ‘No’, so the single elect community presents a double aspect. Jesus Christ is both the Messiah of Israel and the Lord of the Church, thus the elect community, the body of Christ, is both Israel, which handed over its Messiah to the Gentiles to be crucified, and the Church, which received its risen Lord from the dead. In the one aspect the single elect community thus witnesses to human rejection of God’s election, and in its other aspect it witnesses to God’s rejection of this human rejection, to God’s election of humanity. The one aspect is the community in its passing form, the other the community in its coming form. Israel and the Church are until the eschaton bound together in the one community which exists between these two poles, witnessing to the world both the state of human disobedience and the divine mercy which refuses to accept that state. (Stephen Holmes, “Listening to the Past,” 132-33)

He is advocating a universalism of sorts; in the sense that Christ takes the sins of all humanity upon Himself, thus the objective nature of the atonement applies to all humanity, while the subjective realization of the atonement can be “rejected” by an individual or community. I am not sure if Barth believed that an individual had to “subjectively” recognize their election in Christ in order to be “eternally saved”; to be clear I do believe that an person must “subjectivize” the atonement for themselves, and cease their “rejection” of election in Christ—if not then I do not believe that “elect person” will end up in Heaven.

I think this view of election is a better and more biblical way forward than the typical frame offered by Classically Reformed views of ‘double-predestination’. I think Barth’s perspective, by way of method, is much more astute by placing Christ and the life of God at the center of the discussion on ‘election’. This is contrary to the position the typical double predestinarian understanding which speaks of humanity, apart from Christ, as the ‘center’ of election — which gives us an ‘man-centered’ understanding. T. F. Torrance tweaks Barth’s view a little further, and I am more in line with his appropriation of Barth here — i.e. Torrance avoids the “universalist” implications of Barth’s view of election (I’ll have to try and flesh that out later).

Anyway, I just wanted to provide this alternative understanding of ‘election’, I think it might be enlightening for some; even if you disagree with it 🙂 .

Here is a quote on John Calvin and Calvinism by Karl Barth:

It is not worth while really to become a ‘Calvinist’, but it is certainly almost singularly worth while to become Calvin’s free pupil. If today, after the experiences we have had of his life’s work in its historical shape, and after a renewed return to the sources and origins to which he pointed so insistently, one can think and speak with him only by going beyond him only by thinking and speaking with him in the direction in which he pointed and do so looking back to the days of his work, his struggles and sufferings, in great reverence and genuine gratitude. – Karl Barth, Fragments Grave and Gay, 110.

H/T: Halden

Something lurking here, and worthy of noting, is that Barth is presupposing that there is a fundamental difference between being a Calvinist, and being a student of John Calvin. The latter is what “Evangelical Calvinism” is on about, which like Barth presupposes a distinction between Classic Calvinism and itself.