Turns out I might agree with Karl Barth, kind of

I just found out that in that that great theological fondue pot that is my mind, I have come to a conclusion that is shared with Karl Barth, kind of. (I guess that means that if I’m a heretic, at least I’m a semi-respectable heretic.)  For those who don’t know of Barth, he was a Swiss Reformed theologian that I have many disagreements with (being he was Reformed, for one thing). But, he may have come up with an analysis of election (the belief that God chooses who he will save) that fits in with some of my own thoughts.

Election, free will, and all that jazz

Part of the whole free will / predestination issue, as Philip Cary explains in the audio series I’m listening to, is that popular views on the issue eventually have to conclude that if God did indeed predestine people, then God has also chosen not to save some people. This is a doctrine known as double predestination. In other words, in the event you’re not a Christian, there’s a good chance that God didn’t choose you anyway (so apparently you are in a kind of agreement with God on this point).

The Gospel then is only “good news” (what the word gospel means) for some. It’s obviously very bad news for those who aren’t chosen (at least from the point of view of those predestined for salvation). And, since free will seems kind of a bust (as I discussed in my prior post), then we’re stuck with this Good News/bad news situation.

Who was elected?

Karl Barth proposed that both Luther and Calvin (and Augustine) were wrong in their interpretation of the Jacob and Esau story as discussed in Romans 9:6-14, which is a key part to any discussion on being chosen. The prophecy about the twins (Gen. 25:23), Barth said, was never meant to be about Jacob and Esau personally, but about their descendants the Jews and the not-Jews. Consider the prophecy:

“Two nations are in your womb,
and two peoples from within you will be separated;
one people will be stronger than the other,
and the older will serve the younger.”

Nations. According to Barth, election is always about Israel (the original nation, not necessarily the current U.N.-created state). This reading of the Jacob-Esau story fits incredibly well with a lot of what Jesus and Paul discuss in the NT.

This removes this passage from any discussion of individual salvation and destiny, and also moves the discussion into one of purpose. As we see in the last line of the verse, it is Israel’s calling to serve non-Israel.

What it means to be chosen

Over the last few years as I have been reading and studying, I had started to wonder if we have misunderstood what it means to be chosen. As Tevye pointed out in Fiddler on the Roof, it’s not necessarily a blessing to be chosen. In fact, to think it is a blessing might be to miss the point completely.

What if the point of being chosen was not to bless those who are chosen, but for them to bless others? Israel would not have been elected to be blessed, but rather as a vehicle to bless everyone else. In other words, Israel was to not only be a custodian of God’s promises but a messenger or tool for God to achieve his global agenda. In this way all nations will be blessed through Israel (Gen. 18:18), and provides a new context for “I will bless those who bless you (Gen. 27:29).” Israel was chosen, so that you and I (assuming you’re a gentile) could be blessed; a Good News/Good News scenario.

Back to Barth

So, according to Barth, Augustine and therefore both Luther and Calvin were wrong about election, both in scope and purpose, and I think he makes a compelling argument (from what little I know—Barth also believed that the only one who was truly “elect” was Christ, which I have a harder time with). I can see why Barth has been accused of leaning in a universalist direction, as his interpretation of election removes any notion that God has predestined some for damnation. The non-elect are not the damned; rather, they are those for whom the blessings given to Israel (and now the church) are intended. This, however, doesn’t seem to rule out the option that both the elect or the non-elect could have the option of rejecting God’s calling and blessing.

This gives a different spin to the statement, “Many are called, but few are chosen.”

My grasp on these issues is tenuous at best, but I will keep struggling through. It’s a good thing I enjoy theology. As the church lady character on SNL might say, “Well isn’t that special.”


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7 Responses to Turns out I might agree with Karl Barth, kind of

  1. Robert says:

    I am not convinced that “the point of being chosen was not to bless those who are chosen, but for them to bless others”. I view the will and ability to bless others as something in our created nature that was damaged, and substituted with self-absorption, as a result of the fall. The recovery of it is an aspect of restoration, rather the primary intent of being chosen for (or choosing) salvation.

    I do believe that you are on the mark that the central issues of election are larger than the individual. For me, those issues center around a different question of choice: how has God chosen to position Himself in relation to our world with regard to foreknowledge and time. Pinnock (et. al.) address these connections in “The Grace of God and the Will of Man”.

    As for Barth, “The Word of God and The Word of Man” would go with me to the proverbial desert island.

    • me says:

      I think “the point of being chosen was not to bless those who are chosen, but for them to bless others” can be supported by example: Abraham, Moses, Jeremiah, Jonah… even the disciples (most of whom lived hard lives, then were martyred). And, then there’s Hebrews 11, especially v. 13 “All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance…” Not that being “chosen” can’t be a blessing… but, it seems that those chosen are chosen to serve others, not be blessed yourself (unless you’re Ken Copeland… did I say that??).

      I do agree, however, that the goal is restoration (not not necessarily in a post-millennial sense).

      This follows NT Wright’s analysis as well. He has an interesting interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount, as being directed to Israel/Jerusalem (the city set on a hill) for failing to carry God’s blessing to all nations, which now becomes the mission of the church.

      I may have to break down and read Barth someday.

  2. Fred says:

    Steve posits, “Why some hear and some do not, is the question that cannot be answered.”

    I disagree. I think the question can be answered Scripturally. To reconcile that answer with our own sense of justice is the problem. The Apostle Paul does not wonder about why some hear and others don’t; but he doesn’t even try to explain it. He recognizes the difference between revelation and philosophy, a difference we often do not.

  3. Howard says:

    You’ve hit several ‘nails’ here, Alden, not least the point about nations. Steve is right about Jesus’ teaching in John 3 being cardinal to the subject, but as God blesses all with His work in creation, we are indeed meant to bless other through our faith, sharing the richness of the life that comes in Christ. Romans 9-11 is indeed one of those passages where Paul is touching upon a New Testament mystery, so it is imperative we unpack his teaching carefully. Reason never succeeds in landing this catch!

  4. me says:

    Perhaps. This was kind of Luther’s point when he said that “Reason is the enemy of faith.”

    On the other hand, it could simply be a desire to understand “the plain meaning of scripture,” which is often not that plain. The Eastern Church, perhaps wiser, files such things under the category of “mystery.”

  5. Fred says:

    The problem, it seems to me, is our noble but lame attempts to “rationalize” the relationship between free-will and predestination. Cary, like philosophers in general, attempts this too. Though his conclusions sound brighter than, say Calvin or even Luther, I think he ultimately fails by skirting the plain meaning of the texts. I think it’s possible to hold to the Scriptural insistence on both free-will and predestination. Frankly, I don’t think an honest reading of Scripture allows for anything else.

  6. Steve Martin says:

    These are tough questions. I think it’s best to go with what Scripture says, inasmuch as God loved the whole world. Jesus forgives all. But not all hear it.

    Who is the gospel meant for? Those who hear it.

    Why some hear and some do not, is the question that cannot be answered.

    So if we go to Heaven God gets all the credit. And if we go to hell, we get all the blame. Mayabe it’s not so neat and tidy, but that is the Lutheran take.

    My pastor talks a bit about this topic, here:


    Kind of a hokey video, but the 1/2 hour class is very good. it’s gets better as it goes along.

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