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.


Anonymous said...

Wow. O.K., that goes on the Christmas list.

Anonymous said...

It has been suggested (Eugene Rogers) that Barth's christological reordering of the doctrine of election is problematic precisely because it is insufficiently trinitarian - Barth's inattention to the role of the Spirit in election creates the problem of the reappearance of the decretum absolutum: that is, why does the Spirit not onticly renew all who are elect in Christ? Australian(?) scholar Frank Rees has suggested that the Word of revelation which addresses the individual may take the form of a question and not just a command. Such a conception opens the possibility of a genuine divine-human interaction with a genuine possibility that the Spirit's activity might be rejected by the human agent. This way of construing the doctrine would change the character of Barth's exposition...

Anonymous said...

"The truth of the doctrine of predestination can hardly be different from the truth of eschatology."

And: "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?"

It is an immensely interesting point - theological, of course, but also psychological - that universalism has always given Christian thinkers the heebie-jeebies. Why?

Because it undermines the fear of God (a cringing kind of "fear" that)? Because it is a doctrine of softies and wimps (Augustine sneered at the "tender hearts" of universalists like Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, and Didymus the Blind) - and "liberals"? Because it turns God into a softie and wimp - and "liberal" (a robust doctrine of the atonement should see off that suggestion)? Because it tempts us to moral complacency, even antinomianism (so Paul's opponents of all times and places)? Because it is irrational and unjust (which rationality, whose justice?)? More historically, because of the influence of imperial, then right wing politics, with their obsession with social control? More darkly, because of apocalyptic schadenfreude and a thirst for vengeance? More biblically, because of the presence of too many prima facie double predestinarian texts?

And, yes, has even that great Christocentric doctor gratiae Karl Barth been bamboozled into hedging his bets, anxious about being over-systematic, or curtailing God's freedom?

Which takes me back to the above quotations...

Thanks, Ben.
And yes, Michael, over to Abe or Amazon!

Anonymous said...

I think the reason universalism gives Christian thinkers the heebie-jeebies is simple: a desire to be biblically faithful. There are strong universalist-sounding texts and the logic of the victory in cross and resurrection. But there is also much concerning judgment that cannot simply be swept away. Reconciling those tensions is not easy. It shouldn't be. If we opt for universalism, it should makes us sweat. If we reject universalism (whether for annihilationism or a literal hell), that ought to make us tremble in fear, too.
I find 2 attitudes intolerable here: 1) The "easy universalism" that treats sin and evil and warnings of judgment as non-issues and worries not about Jesus' question, "When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?" 2)Cheerful non-universalism that delights in the idea that the majority of people will be in hell or oblivion. Any Christian who does not WANT to be universalist has completely missed the Good News.
I keep trying to work this out without falling into either of those intolerable attitudes.

Anonymous said...

It is incorrect to state that Molnar's interpretation rests on "a strict separation" between God's being in itself and God's being for us.

Molnar rightly sees that for Barth, God has only one being, and that it subsists simultaneously in two different forms.

The relationship between these two forms is not one of "separation" but of unity-in-distinction and distinction-in-unity. It is also asymmetrical, with the precedence belonging to the eternal God's trinitarian being in and for itself. The second form is absolutely dependent on the first, both ontologically and logically (by definition).

Any attempt to make Barth say something else not only misunderstands him. It also isolates him from from the entire tradition and would thereby serve to discredit his great accomplishment.

It will be a great day when this perverse reading is laid to rest.

Anonymous said...

thanks for the review - sounds like an excellent book. Another recent book which connected Barth and Schleiermacher was Robert Sherman, The Shift to Modernity: Christ and the doctrine of creation in Schleiermacher and Barth (2005) - also a very good work.

Ben Myers said...

Hi George. Thanks for your input to this discussion -- I really appreciate your comment. I agree that we should interpret Paul Molnar as charitably as possible, but I'm not sure I'd agree with your judgment that Molnar doesn't advocate "a strict separation between God's being in itself and God's being for us."

Isn't such a "strict separation" really the whole thesis of Molnar's book? Doesn't his whole critique of McCormack finally amount to this: "God's being is not the result of God's will. Rather his will to elect expresses his freedom to be God in a new way as God for us" (Divine Freedom, p. 63)?

This conception of "God in a new way" seems to be just the opposite of Barth's doctrine of election. In Barth's view, God's "Godness" is decided in Jesus Christ and nowhere else. There is no "preceding" Godness-in-itself which then subsequently turns towards humanity -- rather, from all eternity God is already "the human God" in Jesus Christ.

Regardless of what we might think of McCormack's thesis, it seems to me that Molnar's solution (a pre-Barthian retreat back into an abstract Godness-in-itself) really doesn't hold much promise.

As Barth himself put it (summing up his entire doctrine of election, and his entire doctrine of God): "Es gibt keine Gottheit an sich!" (CD II/2, p. 115).

Anonymous said...

Isn't such a "strict separation" really the whole thesis of Molnar's book?
No. Ontically, there is no "separation." The immanent Trinity describes who God is by definition. The economic Trinity, who God is by grace. There are not two Trinities, only two forms of one and the same Trinity. The one form is eternally necessary, the other eternally contingent.

Doesn't his whole critique of McCormack finally amount to this: "God's being is not the result of God's will. Rather his will to elect expresses his freedom to be God in a new way as God for us" (Divine Freedom, p. 63)?
Yes. Molnar's statement is entirely correct. It would be absurd to hold that God's being is a consequence of his will. Barth nowhere asserts this absurdity.

In Barth's view, God's "Godness" is decided in Jesus Christ and nowhere else.
This statement is true but not without qualification. It is true only regarding God's being in relation to us.

There is no "preceding" Godness-in-itself which then subsequently turns towards humanity.
False. The eternal Trinity is logically and ontologically prior to the economic Trinity. The former would exist even if the latter did not.

Rather, from all eternity God is already "the human God" in Jesus Christ.
Correct. As a matter of God's free decision of grace.

Molnar's solution reflects a pre-Barthian retreat back into an abstract Godness-in-itself.
False. Something is "abstract" for Barth only if it exists apart from an action or a history. God does not first become "concrete" only in his relationship to the world. For Barth, God's being is always in act – God is the living God – as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, in and for himself to all eternity. This is the Nicene faith.

"Es gibt keine Gottheit an sich!" (CD II/2, p. 115).
This statement is meant only in a certain respect, not absolutely or without qualification. You should read it in context. Barth is saying that God's deity is essentially trinitarian, and that when we encounter God in Jesus Christ, we encounter God as he is eternally in himself. There is no depth of Godhead – no Godhead in itself, none apart from or behind – the Godhead of the Holy Trinity.

Wir werden in keiner Teife der Gottheit einem andern als nach ihm begegnen. Es gibt keine Gottheit an sich. Sie ist die Gottheit des Vateers, des Sohnes und des Heiligen Geistes. (KD II/2, 123)

Daß Jesus Christus der Sohn Gottes ist, das beruht freilich nicht auf Erwählung. (KD II/2, 114)

Anonymous said...

This debate about Paul Molnar is interesting. But there's another problem here: if Molnar's take on Barth is right, it would prove that Barth's intention all along was just to confirm all our classical metaphysical intuitions about God. There's nothing daring or upsetting or new about this Barth. He's kind of boring. So you have to wonder whether this completely conservative Barth could really be the Barth who turned theology on its head, the Barth who tried to say something "wholly other" than what either the conservatives or liberals were saying - the Barth who said of his own doctrine of election: "I was driven irresistibly to reconstruction. And now I cannot but be anxious to see whether I shall be alone in this work." The problem with Molnar's Barth is that he never would have had any reason to be "anxious".

Anonymous said...

"Now go to your room and don't come out until supper time!"

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the review - I'll be getting a copy soon. I read an IJST article by Matthias Gockel on Schleiermacher, which was brilliant.

Sigurd said...

Gockel never considers Barth as an Exegete. Barth bases § 33 on his exegesis of Joh. 1,1-2. Gockel hardly mentiones this exegesis. Neither does he consider Barth's method in any considerable detail. His contention that Barth was an unreliable interpreter of his own Theology is pure nonsense - again lacking any credible sources. McCormack's thesis that the Anselm book is of secondary value for Barth's thought is - in my opinion - not definitive, mainly because McCormack never considers the intention of Anselm's Proslogion "in se". That Von Balthazar wrote a lot of nonsense is correct - that Anselm's Proslogion was not of exceptional importance to Barth is misunderstood. Nevertheless, to imagine that one should be able to appreciate the differences and similarities between Barth and Schleiermacher without concerning oneself with their respective methodology is absurd. And this is what Gockel does... Of course anyone can claim that God only has one Will concerning His own creation - that is quite simple as one just has to say it out loud. What is interesting is how one arrives at this conclusion. This concerns methodology - a concept absent from Gockels book. By all means buy the book - but know that it is important only in that it demonstrates how one should NOT do Barth studies!

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