Karl Barth’s ‘Reform-in-Continuity’ of the Doctrine of Election

In his 2005 Christmas address to the Roman Curia, Pope Benedict XVI articulated his interpretation of Vatican II as a work of ‘reform-in-continuity’. In an effort to calm the turbulent controversies over Vatican II’s ostensibly radical departures from Roman tradition, the pope contended that while the council had indeed instituted some important changes, all of the reforms stood squarely in continuity with everything that the Catholic Church had previously taught. He did not mean, of course, that Vatican II merely repeated what the Church had declared in the past. Rather, he argued that the council had remained faithful to the essence of Roman tradition in the past precisely by developing and adapting it in light of the challenges and needs of the present.

I recount this not because I intend to address Roman Catholicism in this post but because I think the concept of ‘reform-in-continuity’ is helpful way of understanding what Karl Barth attempted to do with his famous (or infamous according to some) revision of the doctrine Barth-about-50-maybeof election in Church Dogmatics II/2. As I recently reread sections of this volume, I was struck by the degree to which Barth sought to situate himself squarely within the Reformed tradition. This is not to say, of course, that Barth parroted the classic Reformed doctrine of election or that his revision did not represent a significant alteration. Yet against those who would claim that Barth’s doctrine of election deviates so drastically from the Reformed position that it finds itself beyond the bounds of what can legitimately called ‘Reformed’ (and most importantly what can be called ‘biblical’), I would like to highlight of few passages that reveal, in Barth’s own words, what he was aiming to accomplish.

First, it is important to note what Barth says concerning that which constitutes a truly Reformed doctrine of election and predestination:

We cannot regard any doctrine of election as Reformed, or prove it Reformed (let alone Christian), merely in virtue of the fact that it maintains as such the historical characteristics of the Reformed confession and theology, seeking, if possible, to resurrect the doctrine in its historical form, or in the form of the most accurate possible repetition of the Reformed teaching. The book of Loraine Boettner already mentioned begins with the words: “The purpose of this book is … to give a re-statement to that great system, which is known as the Reformed faith or Calvinism, and to show that this is beyond all doubt the teaching of the Bible and of reason.” And directly afterwards the author thinks it necessary to commend himself by saying that he is a “Calvinist without reserve.” But this is simply to say that he has set himself a task which is scholastic in the wrong sense of the word, and completely at variance with the basic principle even of Reformed dogmatics. The reproduction of the Calvinistic system is a necessary, rewarding and instructive exercise within the sphere of ecclesiastical or dogmatic history. But we cannot substitute it for, or confuse it with, the task of presenting Christian, and even Reformed Christian doctrine…Calvin and the older Reformed Church did present in all seriousness the doctrine of predestination. They did so in a specific form. We may accept their work, and always keep it in mind, as a penetrating approach to the question, as a contribution to its treatment which we must respect and value. But we shall be doing Calvin the most fitting honour if we go the way that he went and start where he started. And according to his own most earnest protestations, he did not start with himself, nor with his system, but with Holy Scripture as interpreted in his system. It is to Scripture that we must again address ourselves, not refusing to learn from that system, but never as “Calvinists without reserve.” And it is to Scripture alone that we must ultimately be responsible. Modern Neo-Calvinism involves at once, on its formal side, a mistaken re-introduction of the Catholic principle of tradition repudiated by all the Reformers, and most sharply of all by Calvin. Out of loyalty to Calvin himself we must never begin by treating the doctrine of predestination as a kind of palladium of the older Reformed Church. Our point of departure must never be the particular form of the doctrine as there presented. [1]

In this passage, Barth articulates something that I have addressed here at Reformissio in the past, namely, that the truly Reformed church is that which engages in the process of always being reformed according to the Word of God. Regardless of whether or not one agrees with Barth’s revision of election, there should not be any dispute (though unfortunately there is) regarding his point that the goal of Reformed theology should not be simply that of woodenly re-presenting a petrified version of Reformed tradition. No doubt that tradition got many things right. However, as Barth reminds us, the idea that the Reformed tradition got everything right (such as in the Westminster Confession) in a way that requires no revision of any kind is to fall back into a Roman Catholic notion of magisterial authority that the Reformers themselves ardently rejected. I agree with Barth that were Calvin here today, he would be dismayed to see some theological constructs that bear his name, not because he would necessarily disagree with them (although he might!), but mainly because such constructs often fail to do the very thing that he himself considered so essential: the ongoing reformation of our faith in strict accordance with the Word of God.

Moving forward, I want to quote a section that concludes Barth’s extensive historical survey of the doctrine of election in its various Reformed, Lutheran, and Arminian iterations. It is at this point that Barth clarifies the nature of the task that he sets before himself in CD II/2:

The historical survey leads us, then, to the following conclusion. We found previously that the doctrine of election must not begin in abstracto either with the concept of an electing God or with that of elected man. It must begin concretely with the acknowledgment of Jesus Christ as both the electing God and elected man. But, generally speaking, this finding is not really an innovation. It is the confirmation and readoption of something which Reformation theology has always said, and said most emphatically, in this connexion. Unfortunately, it did not say it in a way which stamped it as a tenet for serious theological study rather than a purely pastoral direction. Notwithstanding the Reformation statements, then, there has always lurked in the background the doctrine of a God who elects in abstracto. The Arminians and Lutherans saw the blemish and attempted to remove it. But what happened was that the concept of the election as such was thereby attacked and set aside…The historical survey clearly reveals to us again our own task. We must adopt the Reformation thesis. But we must ground and formulate it in such a way that on both sides it is treated with the seriousness which it deserves. We must do so in such a way that when we utter the name of Jesus Christ we really do speak the first and final word not only about the electing God but also about elected man. [2]

This is a crucial passage in the unfolding of Barth’s argument, for it reveals the fundamental insight upon which he reconstructed his doctrine of election. As recognized by many, the linchpin of Barth’s reconstruction is the fact that Jesus Christ is both electing God and elected man. Yet as Barth shows through the course of his survey and here in the conclusion, this key point was “not really an innovation” but rather “the confirmation and readoption of something which Reformation theology has always said”! Even a scholar such as Richard Muller (who is by no means favorable to Barth) acknowledges this fact. Again, I do not mean to downplay the substantial revision that Barth proposed on the basis of this insight. Nevertheless, it is a clear testament to the fact that Barth desired to stay faithful to and constructively develop the essence of that which distinguished Reformed theology from that of Lutheranism and Arminianism.

This becomes even clearer as Barth moves on to survey the intramural debates among the Reformed between the supralapsarian and infralapsarian views of election. As he concludes, he expresses his clear preference for the supralapsarian position in this way:

What Supralapsarianism was trying to say was that in the beginning of all things, in the eternal purpose of God before the world and before history, there was the electing God and elected man, the merciful and just God, and over against that God from all eternity homo labilis, man sinful and lost. It is true that it did not and, on the basis of those presuppositions, could not say what it can say when detached from those presuppositions—that Jesus Christ is the merciful and just God who elects from all eternity, and also homo labilis who is elected from all eternity. It cannot be denied, however, that Supralapsarianism can be understood as pointing in this direction, and can therefore be corrected and supplemented. It cannot be denied that it calls for correction and supplementation in this direction. [3]

We notice once again that for all of his modifications to the traditional view, Barth clearly locates himself in continuity with those Reformed theologians who espoused a supralapsarian predestination. Following the thread of his argument, we see that Barth has gradually been narrowing his focus, first expressing his preference for the Reformed conception of election from among the various Protestant positions, and then indicating his appreciation for the supralapsarian trajectory from among the various Reformed views. Barth arrives at this point because he believes that supralapsarian predestination both anticipated his revision and also commended itself for such “correction” and “supplementation”.

Notice that each step of the way, Barth does not formulate his doctrine of election in a vacuum. He is not producing a dogmatic position out of thin air. Rather, he identifies a particular form of Reformed predestinarian theology as exhibiting superior promise and faithfulness to Scripture, and then he sets out to correct and supplement that form on the basis of its own best insights in order to give it greater coherence, biblical fidelity, and pastoral value. The success of Barth’s undertaking will, of course, continue to be hotly debated. Nevertheless, it seems impossible to deny that at least from Barth’s perspective, he wanted neither to jettison traditional Reformed views wholesale nor give birth to a completely new doctrine that was totally incongruous with his theological forebears. Instead, Barth sought to carry out a ‘reform-in-continuity’ of the Reformed doctrine of election, correcting and supplementing it so as to bring into greater conformity with the Word of God.

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[1] Karl Barth, 2004. Church dogmatics II/2: The doctrine of God, London; New York: T&T Clark, p.36

[2] Ibid., p.76, emphasis added

[3] Ibid., p.143, emphasis added

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