Thoughts of a Living Christian

Musings of an amateur theologian and hopeful writer

Archive for the tag “Jesus”

Jesus – God and Man


Wolfhart Pannenberg’s Jesus – God and Man[1] set a Christological precedent. He approached the doctrine of Jesus’ divinity with rigorous rational thought and historical-critical methodology, contemporary philosophical enquiry and sensitivity to tradition and ecumenacy, concluding that the majority of the core tenants of Christian orthodoxy are, in fact, sound doctrine, whilst placing high importance on Jesus’ resurrection. This latter point is what makes Pannenberg’s Christology distinctive: the resurrection must be the point of departure and the central concern for any discussion regarding Jesus’ divinity.

This essay shall analyse the theological landscape from whence Pannenberg’s Christological triumph emerged, through the turbulent responses to Enlightenment thinking, differing historical-critical arguments, philosophical, existential and eschatological speculation, to the theological positions that influenced Pannenberg’s Christology ‘from below,’ his desire to go behind the New Testament texts and assertions that Jesus’ resurrection is the key to unlocking the mystery of Jesus’ being. First shall be discussed the several broad categories of differing Christologies, before analysing the first two “historical quests for Jesus” and then how these have influenced theological approaches to Jesus’ resurrection in recent history. The essay shall conclude with a discussion of how Pannenberg emerged out of this theological landscape as a distinctive theologian in his own right.

The Theological Landscape

‘Types’ of Christology

Hans Frei broadly categorizes Christian theology into five ‘types.’ The first places theology within a purely philosophical discipline; the second gives weight to Christian self-description, but remains predominately a philosophical discipline; the third ambiguously merges the disciplines of philosophy with Christian self-description; the fourth gives Christian self-description superiority, but includes philosophical reflection; and the fifth has solely to do with Christian self-description, rejecting any other influence.[2] Ford expands these categories into a Christological context, and provides the following examples:[3]

  • Kant falls into the first Christological ‘type,’ arguing Jesus was a prototype for human morality.
  • Bultmann is an example of type two, who, engaging with the distinctive elements of the proclamation of Jesus, argued Christology has more to do with immediate and present experience of Jesus than anything else.
  • Schleiermacher fits into type three, for whom Jesus was both an historical person and the mediator of Christian experience.
  • Barth falls into type four, giving precedence to Christian self-description, arguing Jesus was both a particular human and God, and thus beyond normal human experience.
  • D. Z. Phillips, arguing there is no place for philosophy in the discussion about the biblical Jesus, is an example of the fifth type.

Apart from these five types, there are two distinct methodological approaches, commonly labelled as either Christology “from above,” and “from below.”[4] The former are exponents of traditional Chalcedonian Christology, insisting that the basis of Christological understanding is Christian kerygma, not historical-critical analysis, nor upon rational argument. Occasionally caricatured as Docetism, examples include Barth, Bultmann, and Brunner. Those who fall into the latter approach assert a necessity upon historical research, that the possibility exists to arrive at the divinity of Jesus as a conclusion rather than a presupposition. Käsemann and Pannenberg are examples of a Christology “from below,” and have received criticisms of reviving elements of Nestorianism.[5]

Historical Quests

A precursor for these two approaches to Christologiy is what has been labelled the “historical quest” for Jesus. The Enlightenment thinking of the 18th century began to question with unprecedented vigour the historicity (or lack thereof) of the Gospel narratives. A succession of authors in the 19th century sought to reconstruct the life of the ‘historical Jesus’ through stringent historical-critical scholarship, most concluding that the Jesus of the Christian faith was an invention of Christianity. Feuerbach (1804-1872) argued Christianity was mere introspection and Strauss (1808-1874) argued the supernatural elements in the gospel were myth, primitive expression of spiritual ideas. Strauss’ work demanded objectivity in historical research of Jesus, for the Gospels were not historically reliable. Strauss’ work influenced many others, including Renan’s Life of Jesus in the 1860s. Drews (1865-1935) argued the historical Jesus was a myth and hence the quest for the historical Jesus was pointless, and then Schweitzer (1875-1965) wrote The Quest of the Historical Jesus: A Critical Study of Its progress from Reimarus to Wrede in 1906, tracing the history of this quest, and insisted these attempts at the historical Jesus should stop, for they domesticate Jesus and had become more about the historian than the history. Schweitzer’s attack on the historical quest effectively stopped this first ‘quest.’

Kähler also had a significant role in the cessation of this Quest through his critique of its methodology in The So-Called Historical Jesus and the Historic Biblical Christ, in 1896. He argued it was impossible to separate the Jesus of history from the Christ of faith; the only Christ academics should be interested in is the one preached through the ages. Searching for the historical was not only unsuccessful, but counterproductive. He also, however, argued faith should not be dependent on historical research, this latter statement greatly influencing Tillich and Bultmann who focussed not on the historical events of Jesus, but on the faith and teachings of the church, wherein meaning is found in existential encounter.[6] Witherington argues this separation causes problems, for Christian faith is based on historical events and thus separating the Jesus of history from the Jesus of Christian kerygma leads to a form of Gnosticism.

Until the second half of the 20th century, the academic quest for the historical Jesus was nonexistent. However, in 1953 a gathering of Bultmann’s former students launched a new revitalized quest for the historical Jesus, particularly in Käsemann’s (1906 – 1998) work. He argued against Bultmann’s assertion that the Gospels had no historical credibility and that Bultmann was too extreme in his scepticism about what could be known of Jesus. Bornkamm (1905 – 1990) had an influential role in this second quest. His publication, Jesus of Nazareth in 1956, argued that by applying critical scholarship we can know something about the historical Jesus.[7] This paved the way for Pannenberg, who insisted that, in fact, we can know something about Jesus only by applying critical scholarship.

The Resurrection

Fergusson begins his historical analysis of the doctrine of the resurrection with the simple question: “Is the resurrection an event in the life of Jesus or an event in the life of the believer?”[8] He argues the different doctrines can be divided into three broad positions: radical, liberal, and traditional. The ‘radical’ and ‘liberal’ positions argue there was no historical resurrection; the former posits the resurrection is a reference to faith itself, the latter that it is myth emerging out of faith. The ‘traditional’ position claims the resurrection was an historical event in Jesus’ life which gave rise to that faith. Bultmann and Marxsen are examples of theologians who fit into the ‘radical’ position, Küng and Schillebeeckx into the ‘liberal’ position, and Barth and Pannenberg into the ‘traditional’ position.[9]

According to Schleiermacher (1768-1834), the only support for the resurrection of Christ comes from Scripture, which is historically unreliable. After a detailed historical analysis of the Gospels, he concludes that much of what was said during Jesus’ life, pre- and post-resurrection, were the result of redaction. He then questions why Jesus would devote his time after his resurrection strictly to a few, rather than many, which would clearly have a greater impact. Furthermore, he argues the resurrection has no significance for Christ or the individual, for the cross itself has no redemptive significance.[10] However, he does not deny the historicity of the resurrection, for that would mean Jesus chose his disciples poorly as unreliable testimonies, or that he intended to deceive humanity. The resurrection is therefore a kerygmatic tool arising out of the disciples’ faith who “recognized in Him the Son of God without having the faintest premonition of His resurrection and ascension.”[11]

There seems to be some tension present in Schleiermacher’s understanding of Scripture. On the one hand he refuses to acknowledge the reliability of the resurrection accounts, but on the other does not question the disciples’ statements about Jesus. Furthermore, while the biblical accounts attest to the disciples’ acknowledgment of Jesus as Christ, none of them addressed Jesus as God until Thomas did so after the resurrection. Hieb details a further inconsistency within Schleiermacher’s theological schema, in particular regards to his positivistic nature-system which inherently disallows supernatural miracles. His doctrine of reconciliation denies the need for resurrection and his nature-system denies the possibility of resurrection – yet he refuses to deny Christ’s resurrection.[12] As is evident, there is ambiguity to Schleiermacher’s interpretation of the resurrection and unresolvable tensions. His doctrine is thus irrevocably untenable.

Strauss interpreted all stories through the lens of myth and thus any hint of supernaturalism was denied from a historical perspective. He “regarded the Gospels as a hopeless conglomeration of mythical stories from which no trustworthy picture of Jesus could ever be won,”[13] arguing that either Jesus had not really died, or he had not really been raised. The resurrection was, rather, a primitive myth. Similarly, Tillich (1886-1965) rejected the notion of Christ’s bodily resurrection and insisted it was a metaphor, a reference to the return of Jesus to Christ in the minds of the disciples.[14] For Troeltsch (1865-1923), historical-critical methodology threatened traditional dogmatics. If certain traditions or ‘facts’ did not correspond to present experience – such as the resurrection – it is deemed improbable. His aim was to present Christianity purely as an historical phenomenon compatible with historical-critical methods.[15] Ruling out any supernatural explanation, he concluded that “Christianity is in actuality the strongest and most concentrated revelation of personalistic religious apprehension.”[16] While viewing Christianity as the highest religious truth, in regards to morality, the resurrection must be denied on a historical basis – we do not experience people resurrecting today, therefore we cannot say that anyone has in the past.

Bultmann (1884 – 1976) believed that what is significant is the ongoing, existential meaning of the cross and resurrection. More important than any historical evidence is the individual’s experience of Christ in the present. Like Tillich he viewed the resurrection as metaphor, but insisted that the resurrection should not be understood as an event of past history, nor can its saving significance be proven historically. Instead, it represents “the elevation of the Crucified One to the status of Lord,”[17] a belief arising out of the early Christians’ proclamation to be prepared for his imminent return. According to Bultmann, “The resurrection of Jesus, Pentecost and the parousia of Jesus are one and the same event, and those who believe have already eternal life.”[18]

For Barth (1886 – 1968), the resurrection was entirely a work of the Father, and it was unnecessary for redemption. Reconciliation occurred in and through Jesus’ obedient life and death, and so Christ’s resurrection was a sovereign act of God’s free grace as an entirely new act – as was the creation of the cosmos. However, the resurrection functions epistemologically; “In His resurrection He reveals Himself as the One He is – the genuine, true and righteous man, the real man, who kept the covenant which all others broke.”[19] It does not alter who Jesus is, yet there is definite transformation. He is “the same whole man, soul and body,” who “rises as He dies,”[20] yet it “crowns this event [of Jesus’ ministry on Earth] as its disclosure and revelation.”[21]

For Barth, “The resurrection is an event in the life of Jesus that gives meaning to the disciples’ faith and to ours today through the power of the Holy Spirit and thus through faith.”[22] Furthermore, “It is…an objective event within history whose meaning is always tied to Jesus himself as subject and object and thus requires faith in him to be understood.”[23] Jesus was a particular man in a particular time, and is saviour only so long as he, his incarnation and resurrection, are historical events. However, understanding these events cannot come through normal historical-critical methods, rather can only be understood through faith, given through our unification with the risen Jesus by the Holy Spirit. He argues that his death and resurrection “must be understood in the flesh, as a real event, yet not as a single event or as many single events, but as the totality of the event of the existence of Jesus.”[24] For Barth, the resurrection is an historical event but is unlike any other historical event; it is God’s history with humanity, more than it is empirical human history.[25]

Rahner (1904 – 1984) attempts to hold the resurrection as both an event in Jesus’ life and as an event within the faith of the disciples. He insists the resurrection be linked to the cross, arguing it is “the manifestation of what happened in the death of Christ,”[26] and in his resurrection, the transfiguration and renewal of the world has begun; in his death and resurrection, Christ is the fulfilment and consummation of all of creation.[27] According to Rahner,

The resurrection of Christ is essentially…the event in which God irrevocably adopts the creature as his own reality, by his own primordial act, as he had ‘already’ done in the incarnation of the Logos. It is likewise the event in which God so divinizes and transfigures the creature that this glorification is accomplished as the total acceptance of this divine assumption by the freedom of the creature itself.[28]

The resurrection was an actual, historical event that gave rise to faith, but without faith there would be no resurrection, as Molnar notes, “The resurrection of Jesus is not a historical fact existing independently of the disciples’ faith and ours.”[29] While it was an historical event, it cannot be understood as any other historical event, for it does not exist within our normal realm of experience of empirical and recurring data. The resurrection cannot be separated from faith for “it is only in this faith that its own essential being is fully realized.”[30] In this faith we receive and experience Christian hope, for since Jesus has been raised, we can hope for our own resurrection, which shall be a resurrection into Jesus himself.[31]

Where Rahner links the resurrection to hope, Schillebeeckx (1914 – 2009) links it to Christ’s glorification: “Jesus’ resurrection is directly associated with his exaltation.”[32] The empty tomb tradition did not lead to the belief in Christ’s resurrection, rather God exalted Jesus to the heavenly places after his death, which in effect was his resurrection, and thus resulted in the tales of the empty tomb as a consequence. He argues the early Christians would have reflected upon Apocalyptic texts such as Wisdom of Solomon, and concluded that upon his death, Jesus lived on in God. Therefore, the resurrection of Christ is merely a reference to his exaltation into the heavenly places, and not a literal historical event. Yet through this exaltation, “God’s definitive saving action has been accomplished.”[33] Macquarrie, reflecting upon this position, concludes that simple contemplation upon a passage would not result in the dramatic turnaround in the disciples’ lives – something had to have happened to cause them to insist, to their deaths, that Christ was risen.[34]

For Moltmann (1926 – present), the resurrection represents the antithesis to Christ’s crucifixion. The former represents death and the absence of God, the latter represents life and the presence of God. Despite this contradiction, Jesus remains the same man, though in his cross he is identified with sin and death and in his resurrection is identified with God’s promises. The Christian hope arises out of this resurrection, wherein the general resurrection, the coming of the Kingdom of God, and the new re-creation of all, are ensured.[35]

Conclusion: The Arrival of Pannenberg

This essay has attempted to outline the major theological currents that paved the way for Pannenberg’s Christological publication, Jesus – God and Man. To be noted, of special interest, is the sheer diversity of Christological assertions and how these conclusions have been influenced by an even greater diversity of factors, including philosophical presuppositions and approaches to the role of historical research. The essay began with an overview of Ford’s five ‘types’ of Christologies; with Bultmann, Pannenberg fits into the second type, in that his study of Jesus had as its foundation a rigorous historical-critical methodology. He refused to accept, without question, Christian self-description and kerygma, seeking to go behind the early church proclamation to find the real, historical Jesus. He insisted that “the task of Christology is to establish the true understanding of Jesus’ significance from his history,” and thus “all statements…are to be tested in the light of Jesus’ history.”[36] Emerging out of the ‘Second Quest’ for the historical Jesus, Pannenberg argued that it’s not just possible to discover the real Jesus through historical-critical methodology, but, in fact, we can discover the real Jesus only through historical-critical methodology.

Evidently, Pannenberg approaches Christology from below and provides three reasons why a Christology from above is not feasible:[37]

  1. It presupposes Christ’s divinity. Determining who Jesus was and is is the primary task of Christology, and thus nothing can be presupposed or assumed.
  2. It does not fully recognize the distinctive elements and attributes of the historical human figure. For example, if a universal nature is presupposed in Christ’s being, Jesus’ relationship with historical Judaism loses importance.
  3. It assumes a position any human interpreter cannot inhabit: the position of God himself. We can only ever think from a humanly, historical perspective.

While he would fit into Fergusson’s ‘traditional’ position on the resurrection, with Barth, Pannenberg’s position is very different to Barth’s, due to Barth’s methodology being a Christology from above. Where Barth placed emphasis on the epistemological significance of the resurrection, Pannenberg prescribed it a greater ontological significance, arguing,

Only because in Jesus’ resurrection the end of all things, which for us has not yet happened, has already occurred can it be said of Jesus that the ultimate already is present in him, and so also that God himself, his glory, has made its appearance in Jesus in a way that cannot be surpassed. Only because the end of the world is already present in Jesus’ resurrection is God himself revealed in him…[and] in Jesus, God himself has appeared on earth.[38]

In other words, the resurrection – and the eschatological significance inherent within it –ontologically determines Jesus’ divinity. McClean expands,

[Pannenberg] argues that the Easter event ‘determines’ the meaning of Jesus’ life and his relationship with God. That is, the proper understanding of Jesus’ life and his identity depend on the resurrection, not simply for their being known, but for their being what they are.[39]

Pannenberg’s Christology in Jesus – God and Man is progressive and groundbreaking. Though his thought didn’t change dramatically as he aged,[40] it did develop and thus there are evident differences in his Christology in his later publication Systematic Theology, where a greater anthropological emphasis leads to slightly different conclusions regarding Jesus’ humanity and our relation to him.However, the purpose of this research is on his early work and as such, such discussion is best left elsewhere. Though technically falling into Fergusson’s ‘traditional’ position, he clearly is anything but.



Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics. Ed. G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance. Trans. H. Knight, G. W. Bromiley, J. K. S. Reid, R. H. Fuller. Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1960.

Bauckham, Richard. “Jürgen Moltmann.” In The Modern Theologians, edited by David F. Ford.2nd ed. Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers, 1997.

Bloesch, Donald G. Jesus Christ: Savior and Lord. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1997.

Bradshaw, Timothy. Pannenberg: A Guide for the Perplexed. London: T&T Clark International, 2009.

Bray, G. L. “Christology.” In New Dictionary of Theology, edited by Sinclair B. Ferguson, and David F. Wright. Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1988.

Bultmann, Rudolf. Jesus Christ and Mythology. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1958.

Edwards, Denis. “The Relationship Between the Risen Christ and the Material Universe.” Pacifica 4, no 1. (1991)

Eitel, Adam. “The Resurrection of Jesus Christ: Karl Barth and the Historicization of God’s Being.” International Journal of Systematic Theology 10, no 1. (2008)

Erickson, Millard J. Christian Theology. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 1998.

Fergusson, David. “Interpreting the Resurrection.” Scottish Journal of Theology 38, no 3. (1985)

__________. “Barth’s Resurrection of the Dead: Further Reflections.” Scottish Journal of Theology 56, no 1. (2003)

Ford, David. “Christology.” In The Oxford Companion to Christian Thought, edited by Adrian Hastings, Alistair Mason, and Hugh Pyper. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Ford, David F. and Mike Higton. Jesus. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Frei, Hans W. Types of Christian Theology. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992.

Gilbertson, Michael. God and History in the Book of Revelation. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Grenz, Stanley J. and Roger E. Olson. 20th-Century Theology. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1992.

Haight, Roger. Jesus: Symbol of God. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1999.

Harris, Horton. David Friedrich Strauss and his Theology. London: Cambridge University Press, 1973.

Hieb, Nathan D. “The Precarious Status of Resurrection in Friedrich Schleiermacher’s Glaubenslehre.International Journal of Systematic Theology 9, no 4. (2007)

Janssen, Claudia. “Bodily Resurrection (1 Cor. 15)? The Discussion of the Resurrection in Karl Barth, Rudolf Bultmann, Dorothee Sӧlle and Contemporary Feminist Theology.” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 79. (2000)

Johnson, Luke Timothy. The Real Jesus: The Misguided Quest for the Historical Jesus and the Truth of the Traditional Gospel. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1996.

Macquarrie, John. Jesus Christ in Modern Thought. London: SCM Press, 1990.

McClean, John. From the Future: Getting to Grips with Pannenberg’s Thought. Milton Keynes, UK: Paternoster, 2013.

McGrath, Alister E. The Making of Modern German Christology. Oxford, UK: Basil Blackwell Inc., 1986.

Molnar, Paul D. Incarnation and Resurrection: Toward a Contemporary Understanding. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007.

Pannenberg, Wolfhart. Jesus – God and Man. Translated by Lewis L. Wilkins and Duane A. Priebe. London: SCM Press, 2002.

Rahner, Karl. Theological Investigations. Vol. 4. Trans. Kevin Smyth. London: Darton, Longman & Todd Ltd., 1974.

__________. Foundations of Christian Faith. Translated by William V. Dych. London: Darton Longman & Todd Ltd., 1978.

Schillebeeckx, Edward. Jesus: An Experiment in Christology. Translated by Hubert Hoskins. London: William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd., 1979.

Schleiermacher, Friedrich. The Christian Faith. Ed. H. R. Mackintosh and J. S. Stewart. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1968.

__________. The Life of Jesus. Ed. Jack C. Verheyden. Translated by S. Maclean Gilmour. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975.

Schwӧbel, Christoph. “Wolfhart Pannenberg.” In The Modern Theologians, edited by David F. Ford.2nd ed. Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers, 1997.

Smith, J. W. D. “The Resurrection of Christ: Myth or History?” The Expository Times 72, no 12. (1961)

Thiselton, Anthony C. The Two Horizons. Exeter, UK: The Paternoster Press, 1980.

Tillich, Paul. Systematic Theology. Digswell Place, Great Britain: James Nisbet and Company Ltd., 1968.

Troeltsch, Ernst. The Absoluteness of Christianity. Translated by David Reid. London: SCM Press Ltd., 1971.

Witherington III, Ben. The Jesus Quest: The Third Search for the Jew of Nazareth. 2nd ed. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1997.



[1] Wolfhart Pannenberg, Jesus – God and Man, trans. Lewis L. Wilkins and Duane A. Priebe (London: SCM Press, 2002).

[2] Hans W. Frei, Types of Christian Theology (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992). 28-55.

[3] David F. Ford, “Christology,” in The Oxford Companion to Christian Thought (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000). 116-118.

[4] G. L. Bray, “Christology,” in New Dictionary of Theology, ed. Sinclair B. Ferguson, and David F. Wright (Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1998). 137-140. He argues this splits Christology into two opposing camps.

[5] Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 1998). 684. Cf. Pannenberg. 1-11.

[6] Ben Witherington III, The Jesus Quest: The Third Search for the Jew of Nazareth (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1997). 6-11. Also, Michael Gilbertson, God and History in the Book of Revelation (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003). 11-16.

[7] Witherington. 11. Though the second quest was largely a reaction to Bultmann, his influence remained, portraying Jesus as an existentialist philosopher (p. 11).

[8] David Fergusson, “Interpreting the Resurrection.” Scottish Journal of Theology 38, no 3. (1985). 287.

[9] Ibid. 287-305. Cf. Paul D. Molnar, Incarnation and Resurrection: Toward a Contemporary Understanding (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007).

[10] It is not within the scope of this essay to detail and critique Schleiermacher’s understanding of redemption, but in short the satisfaction of sin is found not in the suffering, but in the active obedience of Christ throughout his life. If humanity’s sin is infinite then the punishment must equally be infinite. Christ’s death, having occurred within time and space, is not infinite and thus cannot satisfy the punishment for sin. Reconciliation comes through Christ’s obedience, and that obedience is transmitted to those who have fellowship with Christ (Cf. Nathan D Hieb, “The Precarious Status of Resurrection in Friedrich Schleiermacher’s Glaubenslehre.” International Journal of Systematic Theology 9, no 4. (2007). 401-03).

[11] Friedrich Schleiermacher, The Christian Faith. Edited by H. R. Mackintosh and J. S. Stewart (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1968). 418. Cf. Friedrich Schleiermacher, The Life of Jesus. Edited by Jack C. Verheyden. Translated by S. Maclean Gilmour (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975). 392-465.

[12] Hieb. 399, 407-14.

[13] Horton Harris, David Friedrich Strauss and his Theology (London: Cambridge University Press, 1973). 272.

[14] Stanley J. Grenz, and Roger E. Olson, 20th-Century Theology (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1992). 129; Paul Tillich. Systematic Theology (Digswell Place, Great Britain: James Nisbet and Company Ltd., 1968). Cf. Alister E. McGrath, The Making of Modern German Christology (Oxford, UK: Basil Blackwell Inc., 1986). 37-38.

[15] Gilbertson. 3-4.

[16] Ernst Troeltsch, The Absoluteness of Christianity. Translated by David Reid (London: SCM Press Ltd., 1971). 111-12.

[17] Grenz and Olson. 95.

[18] Rudolf Bultmann, Jesus Christ and Mythology (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1958). 33. Cf. J. W. D. Smith, “The Resurrection of Christ: Myth or History?” The Expository Times 72, no 12. (1961). 372-73.

[19] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics. Ed. G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance. Trans. H. Knight, G. W. Bromiley, J. K. S. Reid, R. H. Fuller (Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1960). III/2, 214. Cf. Adam Eitel, “The Resurrection of Jesus Christ: Karl Barth and the Historicization of God’s Being.” International Journal of Systematic Theology 10, no 1. (2008). 38. Cf. p.40 – “Barth understands Jesus Christ’s resurrection from the dead as the event in which God the Father acted unnecessarily and graciously.”

[20] Barth. III/2, 327.

[21] Ibid. III/2, 337.

[22] Molnar. 1.

[23] Ibid. 6.

[24] Barth. III/2, 337.

[25] Ibid. 8-14. Cf. Claudia Janssen, “Bodily Resurrection (1 Cor. 15)? The Discussion of the Resurrection in Karl Barth, Rudolf Bultmann, Dorothee Sӧlle and Contemporary Feminist Theology.” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 79 (2000). 64.

[26] Karl Rahner, Theological Investigations. Vol. 4. Trans. Kevin Smyth (London: Darton, Longman & Todd Ltd., 1974). 128. Furthermore, the death of Christ was “the imposed and enforced handing over of the whole bodily man to the mystery of the merciful loving God, by the concentrated freedom of Christ as he disposes of his whole life and existence,” (p. 128).

[27] Denis Edwards, “The Relationship Between the Risen Christ and the Material Universe.” Pacifica 4, no 1. (1991). 11-12.

[28] Rahner. Theological Investigations. 128-29.

[29] Molnar. 63.

[30] Karl Rahner, Foundations of Christian Faith. Translated by William V. Dych (London: Darton Longman & Todd Ltd., 1978). 267-68.

[31] Molnar. 45-66. Cf. Rahner. 267-68 – “Jesus is risen into the faith of his disciples…that faith which knows itself to be a divinely effected liberation from all the powers of finiteness, of guilt and of death, and knows itself to be empowered for this by the fact that this liberation has taken place in Jesus himself and has become manifest for us.”

[32] Edward Schillebeeckx. Jesus: An Experiment in Christology. Translated by Hubert Hoskins (London: William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd., 1979). 533.

[33] Ibid. 543.

[34] John Macquarrie. Jesus Christ in Modern Thought (London: SCM Press, 1990). 311-312.

[35] Richard Bauckham, “Jürgen Moltmann,” in The Modern Theologians, edited by David F. Ford. 2nd ed. (Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers, 1997). 210-213.

[36] Pannenberg. 12. Emphasis mine.

[37] Ibid. 17-18.

[38] Ibid. 59.

[39] John McClean. From the Future: Getting to Grips with Pannenberg’s Thought (Milton Keynes, UK: Paternoster, 2013). 99-100.

[40] It should be noted at this point that his earlier work is marked but a focus on methodology, as seen in his works Revelation as History and Basic Questions in Theology, thereby establishing his theological schema for healthy growth and development. Hence his overall direction taken in his theological work remained true and did not change or wave.

No Other Name

Thought this was pretty awesome…

“And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.” (Matt. 24.14)

Positive Positivism?

What is Positivism?

It’s not a way of life that insists you remain happy all the time. It’s got nothing to do with magnets and electricity. And it doesn’t have anything to do with chemistry or physics, per se.

Positivism is a philosophy that insists that the only true statement is a statement that can be proved through empirical evidence. You’re probably aware of this way of thinking, even if you didn’t know what it was called – or that it even had a name. The insistence upon measurable evidence based proof comes from a Positivistic methodology.

This way of thinking is extremely pervasive in the world today, even in an increasingly postmodern world…whatever that may mean.

There are many good things about this philosophy, things I think make an extremely large amount of rational sense. However, there are aspects of this philosophy that I think are irrational and perhaps harmful.

If the only things that can be considered true are those things that can be measured, our science is restricted. We are limited by what we already know, or are at least restricted to a short field of view. What I mean by this is that we are restricted by rules that we have constructed based on recurring patterns that we have observed in the observable, material universe.

However, I have two concerns with this:

  1. In the world we live in, occasionally things happen that defy these rules. Events occur that are un-explainable because they are outside the rules we have created.
  2. Science is continually updating with new evidence, and old rules become obsolete. If we restrict ourselves to the rules we have already created, we deny ourselves further scientific development. Any development is restricted to a very limited field of view before us, constrained by observable and measurable rules.

Let’s take Jesus’ resurrection for example. Our experience of this material universe tells us that dead people do not come back to life. The 19th century philosopher and theologian David Strauss argued that because we don’t experience resurrections today we cannot say there ever has been any. This is a very Positivistic way of thinking.

But just because resurrections don’t regularly occur doesn’t mean we should insist they don’t happen at all.

Just because something lies beyond the rules we have constructed doesn’t mean we should believe them to be false. If we were to insist on this, we would never make any scientific progress at all. There will always be things lying outside of our observable rules; we will always revise old rules and expand our present knowledge. But to do so requires that we do not immediately reject those things that defy our present rules.

Hence I believe we should construct a revised Positivism.

I do not wish to reject Positivism outright, for I believe there must be precedence given to recurring patterns. Earth gravity will always cause things to fall down, not up, and will always stop me from floating into space. One plus one will always equal two. Applying enough heat to plain water will always cause it to heat up enough to make my coffee. Drinking too much of my 15 year old Glenfiddich in one night is never a good idea.

There must always be space for measurable rules.

But there must always be space in our understanding for those things that defy our present understanding. We must always leave space for those things that are un-explainable, confusing, bewildering and surprising. We must always leave space for mystery.

Yes, apply a reasonable amount of critical skepticism to these things that lie beyond our rules, but do not immediately reject them.

A revised Positivism encourages measurable evidence without immediately rejecting the immeasurable. It encourages skepticism but leaves space for the mysterious.

A revised Positivism allows reason and faith in God to coexist in harmony. It allows a belief in Jesus’ resurrection, as well as our own future resurrection. It allows scientific progress to stand side by side with a belief in the presence and power of the Holy Spirit.

Let us not deny what God has done, but let us not deny God all together.

Thomas and I

Sometimes I feel sorry for Thomas.

He’s gone down in history as “Doubting Thomas,” when, upon hearing from the disciples that Jesus had risen from the dead, he says, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” 

I get that. I, too, would be hesitant to immediately believe that someone I saw die was once again living.

But what I find fascinating about this passage is Jesus’ response to Thomas’ skepticism:

“A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”

More to the point, what’s fascinating is what Jesus didn’t say.

Elsewhere, Jesus was pretty short with his disciples, quick to rebuke and not exactly prone to holding any punches (such as Matt. 16.23). He got exasperated and exhausted and desperately hoped the disciples would stop being so darn   s   l   o   w   . His divine patience was regularly tried.

Yet here, there is no rebuke, but rather a simple extending of his hands for Thomas’ doubts to be squelched. And then Thomas’ declaration is astounding: “My Lord and my God!” An undeniable recognition of Jesus’ divinity. In fact, this is the only explicit statement of Jesus’ divinity made by any disciple…and he goes down in history as “Doubting Thomas.”

There is nothing wrong with questioning, and seeking reason and proof. There is nothing wrong with applying a rational way of thinking to matters of faith. If we didn’t, we would believe anything and everything that came our way, and we would be guilty of one of the most dangerous attitudes possible to humanity: blind faith.

We need not see to believe, but that does not mean there aren’t other ways of knowing and finding truth.

Jesus said, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” But I refuse to believe that Jesus is advocating blind faith, as elsewhere we are told to “always be ready to give a defense for the hope that is in you,” (1 Pet. 3.15). Nor was Jesus claiming that Thomas’ faith was inferior – for Thomas’ declaration of Jesus as Lord and God functions as a climax for the Johannine narrative.

Jesus’ statement in verse 29 has more to say to the present reader than to the figure of Thomas. He is speaking directly to us today. Blessed are those, he says, who will be recipients of the Holy Spirit, through whom faith in the church’s proclamation shall become truth.

There is nothing wrong with questioning, testing and seeking proof, but we must be willing to allow the Holy Spirit to guide us and direct us toward the truth of Christ – the Risen Lord.

King Jesus

Reading McKnight[1] I found myself happy that questions I have had for some time are being answered – or at least being discussed in some way. Evangelicalism has for a long time, in my opinion, squashed the Gospel (and, indeed, much of theology and Scripture) into a nice, neat package, easy to unwrap and admire from all angles in one’s own palm. To be sure, I have much to be indebted to Evangelicalism for, and there is much to be admired, but a heavy emphasis on a personal salvation, as present in much Evangelical theology, results in a distortion. I would certainly not remove the need for a personal response to God’s grace, as well as the need for personal repentance, but building one’s understanding of the Gospel on the foundation of an individualistic, personal salvation has a high probability of leading to what I think is a major weakness in many Gospel presentations, certainly not limited to Evangelicalism: the Gospel is simply about getting as many people as possible through the Pearly Gates.

This portrayal of the Gospel – as seen, for example, in Packer and Oden’s portrayal[2] – becomes strictly about justification,[3] with little space for sanctification and discipleship. McKnight’s incorporation of the history of Israel, ongoing obedience, and greater focus on the resurrection results in a more comprehensive account of the Gospel. He argues, “The word gospel…belongs to the story of Jesus as the resolution of Israel’s story,” and is thus “a story about Jesus as Messiah.”[4] Perhaps the only problem I have with McKnight’s portrayal is its tendency to lean solely toward a propitiatory atonement, with indeed very little reference to individual sin and repentance. There is definite need for greater discussion on personal justification without severing it from sanctification, etc. as many Evangelical presentations have done.

[1] Scot McKnight, The King Jesus Gospel (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2011).

[2] Thomas C. Oden J. I. Packer, One Faith: The Evangelical Consensus (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004). 35-36.

[3] Seen especially in their statement: “The heart of the Gospel is that our holy, loving Creator, confronted with human hostility and rebellion, has chosen in his own freedom and faithfulness to become our holy, loving Redeemer and Restorer,” (p. 187). The very heart of the Gospel, they say, is a reaction to the problem of sin, rather than Jesus being Israel’s messiah, as McKnight argues.

[4] McKnight. 44, 55. Cf. p. 51 – “Salvation – the robust salvation of God – is the intended result of the gospel about Jesus Christ that completes the Story of Israel in the Old Testament.”

The Lesser of Two Difficulties: Barth’s Revision of Calvin’s Doctrine on Election


John Calvin and Karl Barth are easily two of the most influential theologians in history. And both are renowned for a particular doctrine, that of election. The caricature of Calvin as having coming up with double predestination right off the top of his head has been widespread, but, as seen below, he did not posit this doctrine, but inherited it. His doctrine influenced many and the Reformed tradition has endured. Barth was one such theologian who was influenced greatly by this tradition, but inevitably moved away from and it and revised the Orthodox Reformed doctrine of election. Allen states that, “Of all his many contributions to theology, Karl Barth is undoubtedly most widely known for his revisions to the doctrine of election.”[1]

Gunton regards, “Barth is not writing without glances over the shoulder…the object of (his) concern is the great Calvin.”[2] Evidently, Calvin’s influence upon Barth is great, and is easily recognizable in the doctrine of election. Simply put, Calvin’s doctrine seeks to place salvation squarely in God’s hands, who, in his secret and divine counsel, elects some for salvation and others for reprobation; Barth’s doctrine insists that Jesus Christ is both Subject and Object of election, the electing God and elected human. This essay seeks to analyse both positions, assessing their implications and Barth’s revision of the Reformed doctrine. It does so by discussing and providing a critique of Calvin’s doctrine before assessing Barth’s doctrine. Following this will be an analysis of the similarities and differences, and evident influences upon Barth, before providing a critique of Barth’s doctrine and coming to a conclusion.

Calvin and Reformed View on Election

Clark succinctly summarizes Calvin’s doctrine, “God has, in Christ, elected to salvation a certain number from all eternity and reprobated others, or decreed that they remain in the state of sin, and that this decree must be traced finally to the unquestionable and inscrutable will of God.”[3] Calvin’s double predestination is evident, but it must be stressed that Calvin’s doctrine was not unique. Rather, it can be traced back through Aquinas, medieval theology, to Augustine. Reformers including Luther, Melanchthon, Butzer and Zwingli further taught double predestination.[4] Calvin believed Augustine correct, that those who are converted are those the Lord willed to convert.[5] His doctrine arose from debates with Pighius and Georgius, whom he felt took the ground of salvation out of God’s hands.[6] For Calvin, only Scriptural doctrine would suffice and thus sought Biblical precedence.[7]

Calvin states, “By predestination we mean the eternal decree of God, by which he determined with himself whatever he wished to happen with regard to every man,”[8] and “God by his secret counsel chooses whom he will while rejects others, his gratuitous election has only been partially explained until we come to the case of single individuals, to whom God not only offers salvation, but so assigns it.”[9] He elsewhere states, “Salvation of the faithful depends upon the eternal election of God.”[10] All are called to repentance, but nothing can be conceived of without faith, faith which is enabled by God. There is a distinction: all are called externally; the elect are called internally and given the ability to respond in faith. This faith is only ever a response, because election comes first.[11] Evidently, Calvin is attempting to return election into the hands of God.

The inevitable implication of election is the negative, reprobation, which receives far less discussion from Calvin. His concern was that if salvation was up to the human, if unbelief constitutes reprobation, it becomes equal with grace; “for as grace occasioned the salvation of some, so unbelief would occasion the loss of others.”[12] He further stressed the voluntary nature of sin, thus establishing guilt.[13] On the cross, Christ becomes both the elect and reprobate, and by believing in the Son of God, humans are adopted as sons and heirs of God. Calvin states, “Christ therefore is for us the brightest mirror of the eternal and hidden election of God.”[14]

Calvin’s double predestination was taken up and expanded upon by Beza, arguing for a supralapsarian double predestination. In eternity, God elected some and subordinated Christ to this decree; God reprobated others and appointed Adam to corruption. In doing so, God can declare his supreme power.[15] This was then affirmed by the Reformed Westminster Confession in 1643: “All those whom God has predestined unto life, and those only, he is pleased, in his appointed and accepted time, effectually to call…out of that state of sin and death…to grace and salvation by Jesus Christ…This effectual call is of God’s free and special grace alone, not from anything at all foreseen in man.”[16]

This Reformed Calvinist doctrine of election, while prominent, is not without criticism. Fisk and Gibson have argued that Calvin and this tradition have misinterpreted Romans 9-11 to be referring largely to individual salvation, where it should be understood as communal election; i.e. God has elected his people.[17] Schreiner notes that “the central issue in the chapters is not predestination, nor is it even the salvation of Israel.”[18] However, he continues to discuss chapter 9 with an eye to double predestination and individual election. Fisk and Gibson are partly correct, in that the chapters as a unit are to do with God’s electing a community of people, but there are obvious allusions to individual election. Hence, these criticisms fall short. A more important criticism is in Calvin’s refusal to believe God can be limited. His affirmation that if unbelief constitutes reprobation then unbelief is on equal footing with grace, is an unnecessary conclusion. What Calvin refuses to imply is God choosing to limit himself. This is something which Barth corrects, as seen below. God can choose to allow unbelief, but this should not imply unbelief is equal with grace. The two are not even equitable; grace allows belief or unbelief, and God leaves that response to the human. This is not a challenge to God’s omnipotence, as Calvin would believe.

Barth on Election

For Barth, the freedom of the grace of God must be central, as O’Neil states, “Barth argues that God’s sovereignty is not constrained, conditioned or obligated by anything external to himself in the decision of his election.”[19] This freedom must be emphasized.[20] This God elects humans not based on human merit, but because of his freedom; he loves because he is free to love.[21] His election reveals a gracious God, revealed in the incarnation – the act in which God is who he is. The incarnation is the end point as well as the start point for theology, for “there is nothing more to say about God than is revealed in the incarnational act.”[22]

The incarnation does not constitute an ontological change, “because God had already and eternally determined himself to be God in this relationship of oneness with humanity in and through the person of the Son, and to be God only in the form and this relation.”[23] He determined to be no other than a God in relationship with and for humanity,[24] as Barth states,

In so far as God not only is love, but loves, in the act of love which determines His whole being God elects. And in so far as this act of love is an election, it is at the same time and as such the act of His freedom. There can be no subsequent knowledge of God, whether from His revelation or from His work as disclosed in that revelation, which is not as such knowledge of this election.[25]

In election, he determines the being he will have for eternity. This being is one of relationship, whereby, in Jesus, mercy is chosen for humanity and reprobation for himself. This determination by God occurs before the human determination to accept this gracious gift.[26]

Thus, we get to the crux of Barth’s argument, that Jesus is both Subject and Object of election. All humanity is elect in Christ, who is at the same time electing God and elect human.[27] As Crisp notes, God “elects Christ…Christ is the Elect One. He is also the Reprobate One, the judge judged in our place.”[28] There is no direct Scriptural reference to Jesus as Subject of election, but is defended by Barth based on his reading of the prologue to John.[29] John 1:1-2, with Ephesians 1:4ff. among other New Testament passages leads Barth to conclude that Jesus is eternally one with God. Hence, it is impossible for Barth to speak of God’s electing will without reference to Jesus.[30] Yet he is also the object of election, but not simply one of the elect, rather he is the elect of God in whom humanity is elected. This is based on humanity being elect in Jesus (Eph. 1:4), i.e. Jesus is elect and humanity is elect in him. Jesus is willingly elected to obedience and suffering.[31] McCormack argues that “we falsify the situation of judgment if we think of it as an event between ‘God and God’. It is the God-human in his divine-human unity who is the Subject of this suffering.”[32] Humanity is elected not through or with Jesus, but due to his self-determination to be this God in relationship and has elected himself for reprobation, elected in Jesus himself.[33]As Barth states,

Jesus Christ, then, is not merely one of the elect but the elect of God. From the very beginning (from eternity itself), as elected man He does not stand alongside the rest of the elect, but before and above them as the One who is originally and properly the Elect. From the very beginning (from eternity itself), there are no other elect together with or apart from Him, but, as Eph. 1.4 tells us, only “in” Him. “In Him” does not simply mean with Him, together with Him, in His company…“In Him” means in His person, in His will, in His own divine choice.[34]

Salvation is then not determined by repentance and faith, but realizing one is elect in Christ. Thus, it is epistemic, and not ontological.[35] Further, this implies that unbelief is a denial of one’s election.[36]

As is evident, Barth’s doctrine on election is in some ways similar to the Reformed tradition, but is also remarkably different. The remainder of this essay analyses these differences and how Barth reinterpreted the doctrine. In 1922, Barth became fascinated by Calvin when he began lecturing on him at Gӧttingen. Barth spoke of Calvin: “A waterfall, a primitive forest, a demonic power, something straight down from the Himalayas, absolutely Chinese, strange, mythological; I just don’t have the organs, the suction cups, even to assimilate this phenomenon, let alone to describe it properly.”[37] He began to think of himself as a Reformed theologian and absorbed himself in Reformed theology. Then in 1936 he saw a lecture by Pierre Maury who placed a greater Christological emphasis on election, which greatly influenced Barth, who then began to criticize the classic doctrines of predestination as not being adequately Christological.[38]

However, it was not until Church Dogmatic II/2 that we see his dramatic shift away from the Reformed perspective. Barth gives a more complex account of eternity and double predestination, and “offers a radical reorientation of the doctrine to a Christological centre that issues in a completely new understanding of both election and double predestination.”[39] Election for Barth is good news.[40] He insists that Calvin’s election is ‘dreadful,’ and that Calvin’s decretum horribile is the opposite to what a correct doctrine on election should look like. [41] Rather than looking past Jesus to a hidden decree in God, for Barth there is nothing to say of God outside of Christ. Calvin’s doctrine is good news only to the elect, but election should be understood, according to Barth, as Gospel.[42]

Barth criticizes Calvin of not giving Christ a big enough role in the determination of the elect.[43] However, this neglects Calvin’s commentaries, particularly on John, in which Calvin affirms in his exegesis of John 13:18 that Jesus is the author of election; the elect elected by himself.[44] The real difference is not that Calvin didn’t hold a Christ-centred view of election, but that Barth held both election and reprobation as being eternally in Christ.[45] He rejected the Orthodox Reformed positions of the distinction between the Logos without flesh, and the Logos within flesh, and the distinction between the Logos incarandus (the Logos ‘to be incarnate’) and the Logos incarnatus (the Logos ‘incarnate’). Based on his understanding of John 1, there is no distinction, and so the human Jesus is the eternal and divine Logos, hence reprobation and election occur within Christ.[46] Furthermore, if God is unchanging, how can the Word become something different? Barth rejects the extra Calvinisticum (that the Logos is omnipresent, but not the human Jesus), believing it to create too much of a dualistic nature of Christ.[47]

For Barth, there is no ontological change, because God has self-determined who he would be in Jesus Christ on the cross.[48] In other words, God does not change his being in becoming human, because in eternity God has already chosen to human. Barth cannot speak of election apart Christ, he is not simply a mirror. As Mueller states,

When Jesus Christ is seen as the electing God, the fatal error of Calvin and others, who separated the electing God from Jesus Christ, is avoided. To be sure, Calvin and Luther saw Jesus as the head of the elect. But neither related the revealed God in Jesus Christ and the hidden God to one another rigorously enough. For them the decree of predestination is dark and foreboding because it always referred to some decree apart from, and behind, Jesus Christ.[49]

For the Reformed tradition, the focus and object of election is people and God is the subject. However, because of Barth’s refusal to separate the human Jesus from the divine Word, and Jesus from the Father, “divine election…is God’s election of himself or more specifically, God’s self-election in his Son Jesus Christ.”[50] This leads into Barth’s reappraisal of supralapsarianism and Calvin’s decretum absolutum, for God does not decree something that is obscure and hidden behind Jesus.[51] Jesus is the focus of any speech about God, and only in and through whom God can be known. Hence, any doctrine hidden in obscurity behind Jesus – as opposed to revealed in Jesus – is impossible which, thus, includes Calvin’s decretum absolutum.[52]

McCormack argues that the root of the difference between Calvin and Barth is in divine ontology. For Barth, God is not unknown, but is he who is in Jesus Christ, and is as this being in eternity.[53] Rather than decretum absolutum in which some are elect and some are reprobate by some decree made by God apart from Christ, Christ himself is the decretum concretum, both the electing God and elected human.[54] Evidently, Barth holds a supralapsarian double predestination, albeit a radically revised position: Christ is elect and reprobate, the Elect and Reprobate One.[55] In other words, as Crisp evaluates, “instead of some being elected and some being damned in eternity, Christ is both elected and damned in eternity.”[56] Humanity is thus saved derivatively, because all are elect in the Elect One, and none are reprobate, because Christ is the Reprobate One.[57] O’Neil helpfully states,

With a view to humanity considered as a whole, the telos of election is their non-rejection: there is no double decree, no decreed rejection, no ‘Book of Life’ which is simultaneously a Book of Death. There are none who are excluded by a prior determination of the divine will, but all are embraced in the love and grace of God revealed in Christ supremely at the cross, and which is universal in its scope.[58]

This, however, does not remove the mystery of God’s salvation, but makes election known as the mystery; “it stands over against the uncertainty of an absolute and hidden decree in which the true mystery is perverted into a mystery exclusive of God’s sovereignty that stands apart from the grace and mercy of God.”[59] Hence, Calvin’s particularism is rejected, for Jesus redeems humanity, and then the individual.[60]


Barth’s critique and revision of Calvin’s doctrine is helpful and insightful. However, it too has several criticisms. Brunner criticized the doctrine of making the incarnation no longer an event. If Christ is he who he is in eternity, he doesn’t become anything in the incarnation.[61] This criticism is valid to a point. The Greek egeneto – aorist of ginomai – implies a coming into existence, creation and production; the implication is that the Word comes into existence as flesh, there is some sort of becoming, or change.[62] However, Brunner has misread Barth. While Barth rejects the notion that this becoming is an ontological change, he does not reject – as Brunner’s criticism implies – that the Word becomes, taking on flesh. This becoming is decreed in eternity, and is the divinely decreed expression of who God is and has determined to be for humanity. Hence, it is in fact an event.[63]

Central to Barth’s argument is his interpretation of Eph. 1:4. Carson argues that “it is not at all clear that the ‘us’ of Ephesians 1.4 refers to all men: the epistle is, after all, addressed to ‘the saints who are also faithful in Christ Jesus’ (1.1), not the world at large.”[64] In other words, Carson criticizes Barth of taking this verse out of context. Chung regards,

From the Reformed and Calvinist perspective, Barth’s idea of Jesus as the elected man is not contrary to the Scripture because the Bible also teaches that Jesus Christ was elected by God to be the Mediator and Saviour for sinners. However, his idea of God’s universal election of all human beings in God’s election of Jesus Christ is contrary to the explicit teachings of the Scripture. For the traditional Reformed theologians, Ephesians 1:3-6 teaches that in Christ God elected some people to be adopted as his children before the foundation of the world. So, the passage teaches clearly that the primary object of God’s election is not Jesus Christ but individuals.[65]

These criticisms are certainly valid. It does indeed seem that the focus of election as portrayed in Eph. 1:4 is the people, not Christ; not the individual per se, as Chung argues, but the Church, and certainly not all humanity. Despite this, it cannot be said that Barth’s doctrine is not built upon exegesis, considering the vast Scriptural references in his argument. However, as Penner argues, Barth possibly went too far. Calvin avoided comparatively long discussion on reprobation because of the lack of Biblical doctrine; “The Scriptures simply point to God’s election and human responsibility for sin.”[66] The inexorable question is this, is reprobation Scriptural? If not, as Penner and Boer argue,[67] Barth’s attention to Christ being the Reprobate One, in whom are all the reprobate that they may no longer be reprobate, has no – or at least, very little – Scriptural support. Hence, why come to this conclusion?

Another issue pertains to the Trinity. Barth sought to avoid Calvin’s mistake of separating Christ from the Trinity, yet (1) Calvin did no such thing,[68] and (2) Barth arguably went too far to the other extreme and all but destroyed any distinction between Jesus and the Father. This results in a contradiction: if Christ is one with God that he be the Subject of election, why is only Christ the Object of election? If Christ, with the Father, elects humanity, why is the Father, with Christ, not also the elected? Only Jesus is labelled as Subject. As McCormack argues, “What sense does it make to speak of ‘Jesus Christ’ as the Subject of election if, in God, there are not three individuals but one personality (one self-consciousness, one knowledge, one will)?”[69]

Potentially his most common criticism pertains to the implication that his doctrine results in universalism. Though Barth rejected apokatastasis,[70] his doctrine seems to entail it. The Bible reveals Christ as the criterion for judgment, not object of judgment, as Penner argues.[71] However, O’Neil argues,

In saying that all are not rejected but rather are elect, Barth means that they are elect to the promise of election. All, in and of themselves and as a result of their sins, are rejected. But this rejection is relative, not absolute. As also elect they are ordained to hear the gospel, and with it the promise of their own election, and by believing may become ‘rejected men elected.’[72]

Thus, upon closer inspection, it seems that Barth’s doctrine does not necessarily entail universalism. Barth repeatedly rejected this charge of universalism, but argued that the Church should not stop hoping for and praying for universalism, or at least as many to be saved as possible. We must preach the triumph of grace and hope all who hear will respond in faith.[73]

The more prominent issue is, however, not universalism, but pneumatology, as Penner remarks, “The Holy Spirit’s role in the atonement is all but invisible in Barth’s theology.”[74] The concentration on Jesus results in a division within the elect, between those who know they are elect, and those who do not. The distinction lies in the presence or absence of the Spirit, who enables the believing community to know and live in accordance with that election in Christ. Outsiders lack the Spirit and so are deaf to proclamation and live as if they are rejected, despite their election. Hence, this community is distinguished functionally, not ontologically; pneumatologically, not Christologically. For Barth, the Spirit has no bearing on the ontological nature of election, contrary to the Reformed and evangelical position, in which no one can be ‘in Christ’ apart from the Spirit. There is, hence, a subordination of pneumatology to Christology in election.[75]

The Spirit’s role is to delineate those who are ‘in Christ’ and those who aren’t, and to enable our response without being determinative on the reality of our election. Those who are elected are those who believe; those who are rejected are those who initially reject God. Hence, there is a tension within Barth’s doctrine, wherein his Christology seems contradictory to his pneumatology.[76] On the one hand, all are elect in Christ. Christ is the Elect One, the human representative, the being in whom all condemnation is taken up with. Yet on the other hand, the Spirit enables some to respond to God in faith.[77] His pneumatology rebuts the claim of apokatastasis, but conflicts with the claim that all are elected in Christ. If the Spirit chooses some to acknowledge that election and respond to God’s grace in love, can all truly be elect? His argument that all are elect in Christ contradicts his argument that only some receive the gift of the Spirit.


So, who is preferred, Calvin or Barth? Before a conclusion is proposed, a quick summary is required. Calvin and the Reformed position on election is a supralapsarian double predestination, wherein God, in his eternal decree, has elected some for salvation and some for damnation. By his secret counsel, he chooses and rejects whom he will. Unbelief cannot be on equal footing with grace, rather salvation must remain in God’s hands. For Barth, God’s freedom must be central; he because he is free to love. Thus, God reveals himself as a loving and gracious God. The incarnation is the divine self-revelation, not constituting an ontological change, for in the incarnation God has chosen whom he will be in eternity; God chooses to be a God in relationship with humanity. Thus, he elects humanity. Jesus Christ is both electing God and elected human; the Subject and Object of election. Salvation, thus, comes through recognizing one’s own election in Christ.

Barth’s doctrine of election is a radical revision of the Reformed position, giving a greater complexity to concepts of eternity and double predestination. For Barth, Calvin’s doctrine was only good news to the elect, not to humanity, and rejected the distinction between the Logos incarandus and the Logos incarnatus. Thus, there is one nature in Christ in eternity. As this essay has argued, neither are free of criticism. Calvin’s position rests on a false assumption that unbelief can be the flip side of grace. Barth recognized the complexity of salvation, rejecting Calvin’s short-sighted doctrine, but, despite a brilliant Christology, his doctrine suffers under the weight of his understanding of the Trinity, the allusions to universalism, and his pneumatology. Barth has blurred the distinction between the persons of the Father and the Son, but demands that election be centered solely on Jesus. Furthermore, the tension between his Christology which alludes to universalism and his pneumatology which virtually reiterates a Reformed supralapsarian double predestination is untenable.

Both doctrines have been incredibly influential and are both Scriptural, pastoral and comprehensive. However, under close inspection, neither position is adopted whole-heartedly. Of the two, Barth’s doctrine, on the basis of his brilliant Christology and rejection of the extra Calvinisticum is preferred, considered the lesser of two difficult doctrines. It is not the intention of this essay to posit a new, revised position, because that is beyond the scope of this essay. A few particular and vital issues that both Calvin and Barth agree upon is that God is sovereign and free, salvation is mysterious and gracious, and we should never stop preaching the Gospel and praying for redemption. Election is the action and revelation of a great and loving God, who desires a loving relationship with his creation.


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Carson, D. A. Divine Sovereignty & Human Responsibility: Biblical Perspectives in Tension. London: Marshall, Morgan & Scott, 1981.

Chung, Sung Wook. “A Bold Innovator: Barth on God and Election.” In Karl Barth and Evangelical Theology: Convergences and Divergences, edited by Sung Wook Chung. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2006.

Clark, R. Scott. “Election and Predestination: The Sovereign Expressions.” In A Theological Guide to Calvin’s Institutes, edited by Peter A. Lillback David W. Hall. Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R Publishing Company, 2008.

Colwell, John. “The Contemporaneity of the Divine Decision: Reflections on Barth’s Denial of ‘Universalism’.” In Universalism and the Doctrine of Hell, edited by Nigel M. De S. Cameron. Carisle, UK: Paternoster Press, 1992.

Crisp, Oliver D. “The Letter and the Spirit of Barth’s Doctrine of Election: A Response to Michael O’neil.” EQ 79, no. 1 (2007): 53-67.

Fisk, Samuel. Divine Sovereignty and Human Freedom. Neptune, New Jersey: Loizeaux Brothers, Inc., 1973.

Gibson, David. “The Day of God’s Mercy: Romans 9-11 in Barth’s Doctrine of Election.” In Engaging with Barth: Contemporary Evangelical Critiques, edited by David Gibson. Nottingham, England: Apollos, 2008.

Gibson, David. “A Mirror for God and for Us: Christology and Exegesis in Calvin’s Doctrine of Election.” International Journal of Systematic Theology 11, no. 4 (2009): 448-465.

Gorringe, Timothy. Karl Barth: Against Hegemony. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Gunton, Colin. “Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Election as Part of His Doctrine of God.” Journal of Theological Studies 25, no. 2 (1974): 381-392.

Jewett, Paul K. Election & Predestination. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Pulishing Company, 1985.

McCormack, Bruce. “Grace and Being: The Role of God’s Gracious Election in Karl Barth’s Theological Ontology.” In The Cambridge Companion to Karl Barth, edited by John Webster. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

McDonald, Suzanna. Re-Imaging Election: Divine Election as Representing God to Others & Others to God. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2010.

McDonald, Suzanna. “Evangelical Questioning of Election in Barth: A Pneumatological Perspective from the Reformed Heritage.” In Karl Barth and American Evangelicalism, edited by Clifford B. Anderson Bruce L. McCormack. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2011.

McGrath, Alister E. Christian Theology: An Intoduction. 5 ed. London: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.

Molnar, Paul D. Incarnation & Resurrection: Toward a Contemporary Understanding. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2007.

Mounce, William D. The Analytical Lexicon to the Greek New Testament. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1993.

Mueller, David L. Karl Barth. Waco, Texas: Word Books, 1972.

O’Neil, Michael. “Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Election.” EQ 76, no. 4 (2004): 311-326.

Penner, Myron B. “Calvin, Barth, and the Subject of Atonement.” In Calvin, Barth, and Reformed Theology, edited by Carl Trueman Neil B. MacDonald. Milton Keynes, UK: Paternoster, 2008.

Schreiner, Thomas R. Romans. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 1998.

Storms, Sam. Chosen for Life: The Case for Divine Election. Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 2007.

“The Westminster Confession of Faith on Predestination.” In The Christian Theology Reader, edited by Alister E. McGrath. London: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.

[1] R. Michael Allen, Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics: An Introduction and Reader (London: T&T Clark International, 2012). 71.

[2] Colin Gunton, “Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Election as Part of His Doctrine of God,” Journal of Theological Studies 25, no. 2 (1974). 381.

[3] R. Scott Clark, “Election and Predestination: The Sovereign Expressions,” in A Theological Guide to Calvin’s Institutes, ed. David W. Hall and Peter A. Lillback (Philipsburg, New Jersey: P&R Publishing Company, 2008). 122.

[4] Ibid. 91-96.

[5] John Calvin, Concerning the Eternal Predestination of God, ed. J. K. S. Reid (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997). 93 – “What Augustine says is therefore evidently true: They are converted to the Lord whom He Himself wills to be converted; for He not only makes willing ones out of unwilling but also sheep out of wolves and martyrs out of persecutors, reforming them by more powerful grace.”

[6] J. K. S. Reid, in ibid. 11.

[7] Clark. 122.

[8] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans., Henry Beveridge (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1989). 3.xxi.5.

[9] Ibid. 3.xxi.7. Furthermore, “Scripture clearly proves this much, that God by his eternal and immutable counsel determined once for all those whom it was his pleasure one day to admit to salvation, and those whom, on the other day, it was his pleasure to doom to destruction,” (Ibid. 3.xxi.7).

[10] Calvin, Concerning the Eternal Predestination of God.

[11] Ibid. 15, 34, 103-105; Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion. 3.xxiv.8; Sam Storms, Chosen for Life: The Case for Divine Election (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 2007). 147.

[12] Reid, in Calvin, Concerning the Eternal Predestination of God. 17-18. He further states that “the will of God would overpowered by weak men,” (p. 18). Cf. Institutes. 3.xxiv.3.

[13] D. A. Carson, Divine Sovereignty & Human Responsibility: Biblical Perspectives in Tension (London: Marshall, Morgan & Scott, 1981). 208. Cf. Institutes 3.xxiii.1-14.

[14] Calvin, Concerning the Eternal Predestination of God. 127. Cf. p. 43. Cf. Institutes. 3.xxiv.5.

[15] Theodore Beza, in The Christian Theology Reader, ed. Alister E. McGrath (London: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011). 379.

[16] “The Westminster Confession of Faith on Predestination,” in The Christian Theology Reader, ed. Alister E. McGrath (London: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011). 381-382.

[17] Samuel Fisk, Divine Sovereignty and Human Freedom (Neptune, New Jersey: Loizeaux Brothers, Inc., 1973). 119-120; David Gibson, “The Day of God’s Mercy: Romans 9-11 in Barth’s Doctrine of Election,” in Engaging with Barth: Contemporary Evangelical Critiques, ed. David Gibson(Nottingham, England: Apollos, 2008). 165-167.

[18] Thomas R. Schreiner, Romans (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 1998). 472.

[19] Michael O’Neil, “Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Election,” EQ 76, no. 4 (2004). 312. Cf. Allen. 84.

[20] Geoffrey W. Bromiley, An Introduction to the Theology of Karl Barth (Edinburgh: T&T Clark Ltd., 1979). 85. Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, ed. T. F. Torrance G. W. Bromiley, vol. II: 32-33 (London: T&T Clark 2009). 19. Hereafter referenced as CD, followed by volume, part and page number.

[21] Timothy Gorringe, Karl Barth: Against Hegemony (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999). 149. Cf. Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, trans., Edwyn C. Hoskyns (London: Oxford University Press, 1968). 59 – This grace is emphasized by Barth, “He who has been chosen by God cannot say that he has chosen God.” Also, CD II/2, 94 – “It is God’s free grace that in Him He elects to be man and to have dealings with man and to join himself to be man.”

[22] B. Penner, “Calvin, Barth, and the Subject of Atonement,” in Calvin, Barth, and Reformed Theology, ed. Neil B. MacDonald and Carl Trueman (Milton Keynes, UK: Paternoster, 2008). 138. Cf. David L. Mueller, Karl Barth (Waco, Texas: Word Books, 1972). 98; G. C. Berkouwer, The Triumph of Grace in the Theology of Karl Barth, trans., Harry R. Boer (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1956). 90 – Election is not to do with a hidden God, but a revealed God. Election does not in the same breath announce life and death.

[23] O’Neil. 314. Cf. Bromiley. 87.

[24] O’Neil. 320. Cf. Allen. 72.

[25] CD II/2, 76-77. Cf. Bromiley. 86 – “We cannot speak of God without speaking of the electing God.”

[26] Bruce McCormack, “Grace and Being: The Role of God’s Gracious Election in Karl Barth’s Theological Ontology,” in The Cambridge Companion to Karl Barth, ed. John Webster (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000). 98. Also, Mueller. 98. Cf. CD II/2, 195.

[27] CD II/2, 103 – “The simplest form of the dogma may be divided at once into the two assertions that Jesus Christ is the electing God, and that He is also elected man.” Cf. Penner. 139; McCormack. 93; Gorringe. 150; Berkouwer. 99 (who labels this a ‘wonderful miracle’); Carson. 100; Alister E. McGrath, Christian Theology: An Intoduction, 5 ed. (London: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011). 369.

[28] Oliver D. Crisp, “The Letter and the Spirit of Barth’s Doctrine of Election: A Response to Michael O’neil,” EQ 79, no. 1 (2007). 55-56. Cf. CD II/2, 116-117, 123-124.

[29] CD II/2, 117.

[30] Mueler. 100. Cf. Bromiley. 87-88 – “In Jesus Christ we go back as far as there is to go in divine electing, for in him we go back to the electing God himself.”

[31] O’Neil. 315; Sung Wook Chung, “A Bold Innovator: Barth on God and Election,” in Karl Barth and Evangelical Theology: Convergences and Divergences, ed. Sung Wook Chung(Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2006). 72; Bromiley. 88. Cf. CD II/2, 122-123.

[32] McCormack. 105.

[33] Cf. Berkouwer. 101; McCormack. 105.

[34] CD II/2, 116-117.

[35] CD II/2, 318. Cf. Crisp. 58-59; Bromiley. 88.

[36] Berkouwer. 113.

[37] Eberhard Busch, Karl Barth: His Life from Letters and Autobiographical Texts, trans., John Bowden (London: SCM Press Ltd., 1976). 138.

[38] Ibid. 278. Cf. Gorringe. 148; Allen. 71.

[39] Gibson. 136-137.

[40] CD II/2, 14.

[41] Penner. 137; Berkouwer. 92.

[42] Penner. 137; O’Neil. 312; Allen. 72. Cf. CD II/2, 2-3.

[43] CD II/2, 66-67. Cf. Bromiley. 85.

[44] Commentary on John – Volume 2, ed. John Calvin, in the Christian Classics Ethereal Library, (accessed 6/11/2012). Cf. David Gibson, “A Mirror for God and for Us: Christology and Exegesis in Calvin’s Doctrine of Election,” International Journal of Systematic Theology 11, no. 4 (2009). 459-460. Cf. Calvin. Concerning the Eternal Predestination of God. 127.

[45] Penner. 139

[46] McCormack. 94-95.

[47] Ibid. 95-97. Cf. CD I/2, 168-169.

[48] McCormack. 98-99. This is an expression of his ‘actualism.’

[49] Mueller. 102.

[50] Chung. 71.

[51] Berkouwer. 96. Cf. Gorringe. 150; O’Neil. 313 – Barth thought Calvin’s absolute decree “robs the believer of assurance by obscuring the source of election.”

[52] CD II/2, 110-11. Cf. O’Neil. 312.

[53] McCormack. 97. Cf. Crisp. 54.

[54] Berkouwer. 103. Cf. Bromiley. 89; Gorringe. 149-150; Mueller. 101 – “Instead of positing an unknown, dark, and absolute decree as the origin of God’s predestinating will, we must speak about Jesus Christ as the electing God and as the content of the divine election. Jesus Christ is God’s concrete degree.”

[55] Crisp. 55-57. Cf. McCormack. 106; Chung. 73. Bromiley. 89 – “Barth might be described, then, as a reconstructed supralapsarianism.”

[56] Crisp. 57. Cf. McCormack. 107; Allen. 71.

[57] CD II/2, 318f. Cf. Crisp. 56.

[58] O’Neil. 320.

[59] Berkouwer. 104-105.

[60] Penner. 140.

[61] Emil Brunner, in The Christian Theology Reader, ed. Alister E. McGrath (London: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011). 394.

[62] Cf. William D. Mounce, The Analytical Lexicon to the Greek New Testament (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1993). 126.

[63] Cf. Paul D. Molnar, Incarnation & Resurrection: Toward a Contemporary Understanding (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2007). 2-3.

[64] Carson. 216.

[65] Chung. 73.

[66] Penner. 143.

[67] Ibid. 143; Harry R. Boer, “Reprobation: Does the Bible Teach It?,” Reformed Journal 25, no. 4 (1975). 10.

[68] Penner. 142-143.

[69] McCormack. 103. Cf. Penner. 144.

[70] CD II/2, 506. Cf. Berkouwer. 112; John Colwell, “The Contemporaneity of the Divine Decision: Reflections on Barth’s Denial of ‘Universalism’,” in Universalism and the Doctrine of Hell, ed. Nigel M. De S. Cameron (Carisle, UK: Paternoster Press, 1992); Joseph D. Bettis, “Is Karl Barth a Universalist?,” Scottish Journal of Theology 20, no. 4 (1967).

[71] Penner. 144. Cf. Chung. 76.

[72] O’Neil. 321.

[73] Berkouwer. 177. Cf. O’Neil. 319.

[74] Penner. 144.

[75] Suzanna McDonald, “Evangelical Questioning of Election in Barth: A Pneumatological Perspective from the Reformed Heritage,” in Karl Barth and American Evangelicalism, ed. Clifford B. Anderson Bruce L. McCormack(Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2011). 260-262. Furthermore, election is “a reality that has already been accomplished for all in God’s self-election in Christ, which may or may not be made know to individuals by the Spirit,” (McDonald. 262-263). Cf. CD II/2, 105, 158.

[76] McDonald. 267 – There is a tension and inconsistency between his pneumatology and Christology, in which the two “are pulling in such different direction[s]…that his doctrine of election is at risk of imploding.”

[77] Cf. CD II/2, 257, 203-279.

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