Barth & Election: The Joy of God’s Yes

As anyone who has studied Karl Barth’s doctrine of election knows, Barth’s development of this doctrine is unique. One of the most unique aspects of his doctrine of election to me is the joy which he discovers within it. This isn’t to say that other Reformed theologians have not seen the doctrine of election as something joyous. John Calvin himself said:

“If the Lord will share his glory, power, and righteousness with the elect—nay, will give himself to be enjoyed by them and, what is more excellent, will somehow make them to become one with himself, let us remember that every sort of happiness is included under this benefit.”

Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion & 2. Ed. John T. McNeill. Trans. Ford Lewis Battles. Vol. 1. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011. Print. The Library of Christian Classics.

For Calvin, the elect who are chosen by God are those who will receive every sort of happiness. But even within the writings of Calvin one is hard pressed to find the words “elect” or “election”, and “joy” or “happiness” on the same page. This is not the case with Barth.

Even at the outset of his establishment of the doctrine of election Barth wants his readers to be well aware that the election of God is something that ought to stir up joy within us. He states that it is the “sum of the gospel” the sum of the εὐαγγέλιον (euangelion).

“The truth which must now occupy us, the truth of the doctrine of predestination, is first and last and in all circumstances the sum of the Gospel, no matter how it may be understood in detail, no matter what apparently contradictory aspects or moments it may present to us. It is itself evangel: glad tidings; news which uplifts and comforts and sustains.

Barth, Karl, Geoffrey William Bromiley, and Thomas F. Torrance. Church Dogmatics: The Doctrine of God, Part 2. Vol. 2. London; New York: T&T Clark, 2004. Print. (Emphasis mine)

Anyone who is used to thumbing through the many large tomes of Reformed systematic theologies is aware of the excitement one gets when arriving at the section on “the decrees of God” or “election”. But I wonder if any of you out there are left wanting like I sometimes am. Where is the joy? Where is the warmth and devotion? This isn’t always missing, but in contrast with Barth the warmth and joy of most Reformed theologians almost seems completely eclipsed. Again, Barth wrote that although the doctrine of election is there to instruct us, it is also to serve as a proclamation to us; a proclamation of joy!:

Its content is instruction and elucidation, but instruction and elucidation which are to us a proclamation of joy. It is not a mixed message of joy and terror, salvation and damnation.

Barth, Karl, Geoffrey William Bromiley, and Thomas F. Torrance. Church Dogmatics: The Doctrine of God, Part 2. Vol. 2. London; New York: T&T Clark, 2004. Print. (Emphasis mine)

There is no terror for Barth in the doctrine of election. But this does not mean that Barth overlooks the negative aspects of election, he does acknowledge them, he just will not allow them to have the final word over against the proclamation of joy!

“It does not proclaim in the same breath both good and evil, both help and destruction, both life and death. It does, of course, throw a shadow. We cannot overlook or ignore this aspect of the matter. In itself, however, it is light and not darkness. We cannot, therefore, speak of the latter aspect in the same breath. In any case, even under this aspect, the final word is never that of warning, of judgment, of punishment, of a barrier erected, of a grave opened. We cannot speak of it without mentioning all these things. The Yes cannot be heard unless the No is also heard. But the No is said for the sake of the Yes and not for its own sake. In substance, therefore, the first and last word is Yes and not No.

Barth, Karl, Geoffrey William Bromiley, and Thomas F. Torrance. Church Dogmatics: The Doctrine of God, Part 2. Vol. 2. London; New York: T&T Clark, 2004. Print. (Emphasis mine)

Let us as theologians learn from Barth, that as we read our Bibles and pour over the many pages of our theology books that we do not forget that the true message and proclamation of the doctrine of election is Yes and not No, joy and not terror!

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