Judas and Election in Barth Before the Maury Lecture: A Case Study, part 1

OK, so it's no secret to anyone who's read me here that I have some significant disagreements with the implications Bruce McCormack has drawn from his insight into Barth's reception of Pierre Maury's lecture on election. But he's absolutely right about the facts of the matter. Or at least, I accept them in a compatible sense, as I see done in Shao Kai Tseng's recent work on Barth's relation to lapsarian theologies, such that this lecture is the last piece of a puzzle Barth has been gathering pieces of and tinkering interestedly with for some time already when he hears Maury deliver it. The change is real and significant.

In the wake of Maury's 1936 lecture "Election and Faith" in Geneva (and with ripples back into the yet-to-be-published materials that would make up II.1), Barth made a radical break with even the most advanced of his own formulations of election, jumping track to the version of the doctrine we see explained in CD II.2. In that version, rather than treating election as though its objects were human individuals in history, Barth redefines the doctrine such that its principal subject and object are identical: Godself, freely choosing in love to be God for us in Jesus Christ.
The doctrine of election is the sum of the gospel because this is the best thing that can be said and heard: that God chooses people and so is for them the one who loves in freedom. It is grounded in the knowledge of Jesus Christ, because this one is both the electing God and the elect human being. It belongs therefore to the doctrine of God, because by choosing people God does not merely decide about them; in an original sense God decides about Godself. Its function is to provide foundational witness to eternal, free, and enduring grace as the beginning of all the ways and deeds of God.
That new version of the doctrine would be radically inclusive. The question of the determination of the elect and rejected in the world would become only an apparent problem, a division of humanity in terms of its response to God's total election, resulting in a rejecting population that only appears to be reprobate—who will no less be objects of reconciliation—and an approving population that only appears to be "the elect," who have chosen to respond in faith even as they do also habitually reject God—and who are therefore exactly as much objects of reconciliation, even as they may choose to participate in it actively. And that problem would only be apparent, and not actual, because in Christ God has taken away and destroyed reprobation as a possibility. Rejection is, in Christ, a meaningless choice of response to God—at least, as far as one's standing with God is concerned. It's still a choice fraught with other moral problems, but that's a question for ethics and not soteriology.

Ah, but we still have two part-volumes to cover from before that, since election appears prospectively in CD I.1 and I.2, without having been modified to match the new insight of 1936. And the first mention of Judas in those volumes is about to prove that Barth's shift in election does indeed make a difference!

The Word of God as Speech, as Act, and therefore as Decision

The first appearance of Judas in the Church Dogmatics comes in section 5 of CD I.1, on "The Nature of the Word of God." It belongs to part 3 of this section, "The Speech of God as the Act of God," and more precisely still, to Barth's definition of the Word-as-act as decision, beginning on p. 156 of the Bromiley retranslation. This is perhaps the harshest citation with respect to Judas, and the most directly at odds with the later doctrinal developments in election.

In this context, Barth declares that God's action does not merely happen; it is not simply a phenomenon composed of occurrences, from which we might be able to generalize the rules of its nature. It is not contingent upon any higher necessity, any causal sequence, or any circumstantial nexus, such that we might take it to belong to our historical reality. God's actions do, of course, appear as events in time and history—but they are not proper to that context. They happen because, and only because, God decides very precisely upon them. They are, to use a word Barth does not, determined interventions in time and history, becoming history as a consequence of God's free decision.

Moreover, as free decisions, God's actions do not appear as choices among options the majority of which remain potential in God. (That's how we work, as inauthentic beings; it is not how God works!) God's freedom, Barth insists, is not characterized by holding options open, keeping possibilities in reserve, or—in terms more presently contested—having an aseity that is greater and other than God's economy. The Word of God as the act of God is neither part of a larger category in history or in eternity about which we might speculate, as though we could ascribe its divinity to genres of things of which there might be other particulars than just the being-in-act of God.

The Implications of God's Free Decision

The first implication is kind of boring from the perspective of our pursuit of Judas references. I have already folded it in, to some extent: the Word of God is not universally present and generalizable, but only appears in our reality in very particular ways that are purely its own. "Always and in all circumstances the Word of God is reality in our reality suo modo, sua libertate, sua misericordia. Consequently it is present and ascertainable only contingently—again, suo modo" (158).

And so we come to the further implication that God's Word, as act and therefore as decision, "always implies choice in relation to [people, humanity] … tak[ing] place specialissime, in this way and not another, to [these or those] particular [people]" (159). And so here comes election as God's choice among people, and thereby, discussion of Judas (with italics added to match the German, and bold mine):
This choice takes place as the Word is spoken and received: the choice of grace to faith and its righteousness or the choice of gracelessness to unbelief and its sin. The vocatio can take place efficaciter, efficacissime, and yet the electio effected therein may be rejectio, i.e., the Word may be spoken and received and yet the choice which takes place therein may be the choice of gracelessness.
Πολλοὶ γάρ εἰσιν κλητοί, ὀλίγοι δὲ ἐκλεκτοί (Mt. 22:14). This critical relationship between κλῆσις and ἐκλογή is undoubtedly in view when Mt. 24:40f. and Lk. 17:34f. refer to the two who are together in the field, or sleeping in one bed, or grinding at one mill, and it has then to be said of them: ὁ εἷς παραλημφθήσεται, καὶ ὁ ἕτερος ἀφεθήσεται. We also recall the parable of the four different soils where the seed is expressly called the Word of God and the general exposition in Mk. 4:11 says specifically: "Unto you it is given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God; but unto them that are without, all these things are done in parables, ἵνα βλέποντες βλέπωσιν καὶ μὴ ἴδωσιν, καὶ ἀκούοντες ἀκούωσιν καὶ μὴ συνιῶσιν, μὴποτε ἐπιστρέψωσιν καὶ ἀφεθῇ αὐτοῖς.
Under the heading of the power of God's Word to rule, we have referred already to the twofold possibility of its operation. The inner ground of this twofold possibility is that it is decision and therefore choice. Do we have to know an inner reason for the choice, a vindication of God for the freedom [God] takes and enjoys, when speaking to [people], now to accept and now to reject [them], to illumine one with [God's] light and to blind the other with the same light, to treat the one as Peter and the other as Judas? By way of justification one need say no more than in the case of the general dogma of predestination disclosed here, namely, that the decision taken in the Word is God's decision and therefore it is a just and good decision. It is a decision to which the hidden reality of the relation existing between Jesus Christ and Peter or Jesus Christ and Judas certainly corresponds exactly, but the main point is that it is intrinsically justified as a divine decision. It is a fact that we may hear the Word of God and hear it again, and we may hear it correctly, accepting its promise as promise, obeying its claim as claim, submitting to its judgment, receiving its blessing, finding in it—in it and not in ourselves—the substance on which we feed and by which we live, or we may not hear it correctly, but only seem to accept, obey, submit and receive, so that we have to go on living without it as our sustenance. We may know the one or the other or both. But what we must know is that the Word of truth itself decides as to the "correctly" or "not correctly," i.e., that we receive either grace or judgment as they come from God, and therefore come by right.
Here we have the older doctrine, election as choice among people, as determination of particular indivdiuals, before Barth would change the primary object of election to be Godself as a choice to be God-for-us. Here God's justice is essentially unquestionable; a thing is just because God has done it, and we don't get to apply subsequent criteria of right or wrong. But here we also have it unclear whether the effect of God's election is twofold because God's will is twofold, equally effective to election to grace for one and reprobation to sin for another, or because of anything about the free choices of those individuals for faith or rejection. It certainly looks like a doctrine of double predestination here, not least because of the subsequent citation of "one will be taken, and the other left"—but Barth also invokes the parable of the sower as a parable about the receptivity of different people to the Word of God, declaring that the majority are intentionally not helped to receive the Word.

The question becomes whether we hear the Word of God correctly, because God has decided that we should, or incorrectly, because God has decided that we should, or a bit of both—again, because God has decided that we should. And if God's Word is God's act is God's decision, we don't get to question that choice. We don't get to question God's absolute right to bestow grace on one and judgment on another. We don't get to question God's choice to relate to us as to Peter, or as to Judas, because both decisions are equally just as functions of God's free and sovereign will. The Word may come to us in ways that nourish us, ways that generate our submission to it and therefore to the God whom it is, or it may not, or it may only appear to do so, but it is the Word of God, God's act and decision, in which we must place our trust.

But then what follows, as the third implication of God's actualistic freedom to which that was the second, is Barth saying "As divine decision the Word of God works on and in a decision of the [person] to whom it is spoken" (160). The content of the Word of God is "God with us," and that doesn't change, but the Word "must now reach its goal in my variously fashioned and conditioned situation over against it, in the qualification effected in me by the Word that God speaks to me"—namely, "the decision as to my faith or unbelief, my obedience or disobedience," which are divinely determined by the fact that this revelation happens to me as I am. The decision happens because God's self-revelation is an event of judgment upon my being. It is an event before which I was essentially indeterminate as to faith and obedience, and after which I have been determined to have been, and therefore to be, the person I am. Barth turns the notion of choice for God from a matter of indefinite deliberation upon which salvation might depend to a matter of instant, reflex action when exposed to stimulus. Revelation happens, and we do what we do, and the situation is what it is.

Judas and Election in CD I.1

Let's start with what's not here: eschatology. There isn't even atonement theology here; we are strictly in the realm of encountering the Word of God. And as far as that goes, there's nothing here that remains undetermined, nothing that is yet to be decided, no hangover of God's decision into the indefinite future. Even the scriptural "one will be taken, and the other left," is cited as though it refers to a present moment of decision that happens to these people, in explaining why God's election does not choose all equally. Peter will be taken, and Judas will be left, perhaps, if we apply them to this separate text—but as to why, it has to do with the "hidden reality" of their relationship to Jesus Christ. Nothing waits to be figured out later in this passage; it's all actually determined in the present, even if some parts of it are not evident to us.

In other words, God's Word sorts us out; it does not in any way wait for us to respond and sort ourselves relative to it at our leisure. Even if this will also be true in the eschaton, at the moment of the coming-in-judgment as the third and final form of the parousia, it will be true in the same exact way.

To really fix on Judas in this passage, to see Judas as an object of the Word of God as act and decision, is to see him as one in whom the election of God has turned to rejection, but not in any simple way. The Word doesn't just bounce off him, finding instant rejection and judging him as a reject. Think of Judas, if the parable of the sower holds here, as soil in which the seed found root but had not depth. He has not heard the Word correctly, as God judges; it has not sustained him, even though as a disciple it was given to him to know the mystery of the kingdom of God without having to puzzle through the parables on his own.

This is a bit of the irony of Peter and Judas as archetypes here, because clearly the stories tell us of both men as knowing both right and wrong ways of hearing the Word. It does not purely encounter virtue in Peter, or purely vice in Judas. Indeed, it is only the fact that Judas despairs unto death at his failure, and Peter does not, that allows us to look at Peter as the better of the two. It is only the fact that Peter's story goes on, that he lives to hear the Word again and be forgiven his transgression, that lets us imagine him virtuous when instead he is simply gifted with a task: "Feed my sheep."

Barth will not let us ask why Judas' election turned to rejection. He will not let us question the justice of the decision made in the instant in which God's Word encountered Judas and met rejection in him. The content of that Word, of God's being for us, did not change when it met Judas in his circumstances. Judas himself made the decision, in the instant he was faced with the Word of God, as a man who before that instant had not been decided one way or the other. Except that seems to be a bit of an oversimplification; Judas, like all of us, is constantly being a recipient of the Word of God, and therefore constantly standing under its judgment as what he is at the time.

... and that's kinda it ...

Much as I'd like to say more, there isn't more in this passage to say—and the fact that Barth's doctrine of election will change significantly prevents me from attempting to fit this version into the later structures. But on the whole, this version of election isn't radically different than what Barth will develop for CD II.2. Several of the pieces are there; they're just not structured the way they will be, and it's the structure that makes the difference.

The next passages come from CD I.2, section 14, and we'll get into some explicit OT/NT comparisons there.


  1. I actually just recently after reading Tseng's book (who I'm friends with), and then an excellent book by Mark Lindsay on Barth Israel, realized the radical impact Maury had on Barth's reformulation of election. Good stuff.


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