Friday, 6 July 2007

Matthias Gockel: Barth and Schleiermacher on the doctrine of election

Matthias Gockel, Barth and Schleiermacher on the Doctrine of Election: A Systematic-Theological Comparison (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 229 pp. (review copy courtesy of Oxford UP – and there is also an online edition)

The exact nature of Barth’s relationship to Schleiermacher is one of the most complex and far-reaching problems for historians of modern theology. Barth himself took pains to distance himself from Schleiermacher, and he insisted that his own theology represented a fundamental break with Schleiermacher’s thought. But Barth was often an unreliable interpreter of his own theology. And, misled by Barth’s own representation of his relationship to Schleiermacher, subsequent generations of interpreters have often presupposed an unbridgeable gulf between these two Reformed theologians.

In this new book, Matthias Gockel offers a groundbreaking new evaluation of Barth’s relationship to Schleiermacher. Instead of painting with a broad brush, Gockel restricts his study to a close and acute analysis of the development of Barth’s doctrine of election in relation to Schleiermacher’s doctrine of election.

Schleiermacher’s most original contribution to the discussion of election was his conception of “a single divine will and decree” which effects both faith and unbelief (p. 26) – a conception which completely revised the older model of a twofold divine will of election and reprobation. This revision, articulated in Schleiermacher’s early work, was developed more fully and rigorously in his mature doctrine of election in The Christian Faith. Here, the doctrine of election is conceived as a single divine decree of salvation in Christ. Schleiermacher rejects the idea of particular relations between God and different individuals, in order to move beyond particularistic accounts of individual redemption and to emphasise the “divine unity and the unity of the world” (p. 101). Schleiermacher thus regards reprobation as only a temporary passing over. In spite of such temporary reprobation, all unbelievers remain predestined to salvation: “God sees all human beings, not only the believers, in Christ” (p. 102).

Barth’s early revision of the doctrine of election, Gockel argues, is strikingly similar to this Schleiermacherian account. In Romans, Barth emphasises the dialectical unity of God’s decree: “God’s reprobation (of the elect) and God’s election (of the reprobate)” are “one and the same in God” (p. 118). There is a real duality here of judgment and grace, but it is the duality of God’s unified action, an action which affects all human beings alike. It is thus impossible to conceive of the church and the world as “two separate groups of persons” (p. 125). This revised model of double predestination is developed further in Barth’s Göttingen Dogmatics. Here, Barth emphasises the teleological ordering of election and reprobation. God judges in order to be gracious – the way of predestination leads us “through damnation, even through hell, to salvation and life” (p. 156).

In both Romans and the Göttingen Dogmatics, then, Barth has developed what Gockel calls a “Schleiermacherian reconstruction” of the doctrine of election. For both Barth and Schleiermacher, the divine decree is to be understood in the context of the historical decision between faith and unbelief; for both of them, election articulates the sheer initiative of the divine act; and for both of them, there is a teleological movement in time from reprobation to election. Above all, both theologians focus not on “individual predestined human beings” but on “the predestining God” (p. 157). Surprisingly, then, Gockel argues that it is “precisely the anthropocentric outlook of traditional views” which motivated not only Barth’s revision of election, but also Schleiermacher’s (p. 12).

Barth did, however, revise the doctrine of election a second time, and it is this decisive “christological revision” that is developed so expansively in CD II/2. Now Barth comes to think of God’s twofold decision of election and reprobation as a decision about Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is reprobated for the sake of election. And, crucially, the divine decree “is not made in an abstract eternity” prior to Jesus Christ, but “precisely in the life of Jesus” (pp. 163-64). Jesus Christ is both subject and object of election: the Logos is identified with Jesus of Nazareth (p. 203).

Further, Barth’s earlier (Schleiermacherian) doctrine had focused on humanity as the object of God’s decision. Now, in the Church Dogmatics, his focus is on God’s self-determination – God himself as the object of his own decision. This decision is not merely revealed in Jesus Christ, but it actually takes place in him – he “constitutes God’s gracious choice as the self-determination to be God for His people and the determination of humankind to be the people of God” (p. 169). Barth’s doctrine of election thus effects a remarkable systematic integration of christology with the doctrine of God, so that it becomes possible to understand God’s own being and decision “exclusively in the light of the history of Jesus Christ” (p. 170).

Gockel’s reading of Barth thus leads him to support Bruce McCormack’s controversial interpretation: “the idea of the immanent trinity depends on the concept of predestination” (p. 177). There is no difference between God’s decision in time and God’s decision in eternity – they are precisely the same event in Jesus Christ himself. And Gockel observes that Paul Molnar’s critique of McCormack – resting as it does on a strict separation between God’s being-in-himself and his being-for-us, i.e., between triunity and election – represents “the very opposite of what Barth intended” (p. 180). Indeed, Gockel suggests that, if we take Barth’s own christological revision seriously, we will have to ask whether the doctrine of election should stand not only within the doctrine of God, but “at the beginning of dogmatics as a whole” (p. 180). This is, after all, exactly Barth’s point: Jesus Christ is the first word that must be spoken about God!

Further, Gockel notes that Barth’s christological revision leads him to abandon his early strictures against universalism. While he had previously rejected the idea outright, he now “joins Schleiermacher in leaving open the possibility” of universal salvation (p. 188). But the fact that Barth never embraced universalism leads Gockel to raise a series of pointed questions. Is Barth’s appeal to the divine freedom consistent with his own understanding of God’s self-determination to be God-with-us in Jesus Christ? Does Barth’s refusal to commit to universalism tear open again the abyss of the decretum absolutum – as though God’s decision about any particular person might still be different from the decision which God has made in Jesus Christ? Is there not a certain kind of “necessity” in God’s acting – the self-appointed necessity of God’s own self-determined faithfulness and grace? After all, Gockel concludes, both Schleiermacher and Barth would agree that “the truth of the doctrine of predestination can hardly be different from the truth of eschatology” (p. 211).

Matthias Gockel has given us a remarkably profound reading of Barth’s theology, as well as the most sophisticated study to date of Barth’s relationship to Schleiermacher. He convincingly shows that “Barth’s theology is not just a repudiation of Schleiermacher but an expansion of his predecessor’s work in a new framework” (p. 13). And his own critical engagement with Barth models exactly the kind of close dogmatic scrutiny that Barth’s own thought both deserves and demands. This is certainly the best work on Barth to have appeared within the past year or more, and it will prove to be an immensely valuable resource for contemporary constructive work on the doctrine of election.

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