Thoughts of a Living Christian

Musings of an amateur theologian and hopeful writer

Archive for the tag “John”

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.


Be the Pulse of God!


Last week my car broke down. I went to pick Amy up from her house to come to church on Easter Sunday, we get in the car and it would not start. How very frustrating. All the more frustrating for someone as mechanically illiterate as myself. We took Amy’s car instead and on Monday a mechanic from the RAC had a look at it and made it work again. What the problem was was faulty wiring – the battery was fine, but the electricity was simply not getting to the starter motor.

I asked the mechanic to do something and he did. Imagine if I asked him to fix my car and ten minutes later he came back to me saying, “I didn’t fix the car, but guess what – I memorized what you told me!” That doesn’t help my car work, I’m still stuck. I ask him again to fix my car, but 10 minutes later he comes back saying, “I got together with some other mechanics from the RAC and we’ve made a song.” My car is still not working! I asked him to do something and I wanted him to do it! Fortunately in reality, he actually did fix my car.

But what if God asks us to do something. Are we going to do it? What has he asked us to do? He has asked us to love him, to be united to fellow Christians, and to go to the ends of the Earth proclaiming his Gospel. Are we going to do that? If not, are we any more useful than a mechanic that won’t fix a car?

Passage – John 17

So this is a prayer prayed by Jesus and is his last extended dialogue before going to the cross. And it is virtually John’s version of the Lord’s prayer.[1] This passage tells us that the Church should be characterized by love, unity and mission. I’ll add some thoughts on how the Church can practically live out these three elements near the end of the message.

Firstly, it talks about love.


This theme comes up in verses 1-5; 9-11; 26.

We read of a great deal of love from the Son toward two people, or two groups of people.

1. We first get a sense of Jesus’ love toward God the Father.

In v.1, when he begins praying, he says “Father.” For a Jewish context, this is a big deal. No one had that sense of familiarity with Yaweh. Underlying that word patēr which means father (which is where we get the word paternal), is the Aramaic word “Abba” which was a very intimate word, something a child would say toward a father, meaning “Daddy” or “my dear father.”[2] Elsewhere Jesus uses this word “Abba” directly. Jesus is expressing the intimate relationship between him and his Father, God.

But also Jesus says “glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you.” What I find fascinating here is that again in the Jewish context, to ask for God’s glory is blasphemous, Yahweh alone is glorious. Again he is showing that close relationship with God. They honour one another by sharing glory, by giving one another glory.

2. Secondly, we get a sense of Jesus’ love toward us.

He says “you have given [the Son] authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal live, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” There are three things in this which I think are important for us to understand if we are to understand this concept of love.

a.  First is this idea of “Eternal Life.” What does this mean? Is that referring to simply living for a long long time? Have we been given some sort of longevity that will be given to us in the future? What this refers to is not about quantity, but about quality. And eternal life means to know God. To know God is not just a mental activity, rather the idea of “knowing” someone expresses deep intimacy. In Genesis we read that Adam knew Eve and she became pregnant. That’s pretty intimate.

Hence, eternal life is not about going somewhere or achieving something, but is about experiencing deep intimate relationship with our Creator. Furthermore, it’s not about something in the future that we could experience after we die or once the Church gets bigger or when Jesus returns, but is something to be experienced right here, right now.[3]

b. Jesus then prays that God would protect us. Jesus cares about us and cares about what will happen to us. So he asks that God protect us. And notice that he says, “Protect them in your name.” You see in Hebrew tradition, someone’s name has great significance and reveals something of their character. God’s name in this instance means love and power. Protect them because you love them; in your name, because your name means power, you are able to protect.[4] This word tērō means to guard, watch over, preserve. God’s protection means he is constantly watching over us.[5] No one can offer better protection than God himself!

c. Jesus is thinking about us today. In v.20 he says “I ask…on behalf of those who will believe.” He’s not just thinking of the immediate 12 disciples, but is looking beyond the cross, beyond the years, to Christians today. How amazing is it to think that our Lord prays for us, and he is still praying! Hebrews 7:25 says he is always praying to the Father on our behalf.

To summarize:

Jesus loves the Father. They have an incredibly close relationship. And this love is the same love that we are loved with. God pursues relationship with us. He gives us eternal life which means intimate relationship with God, love which can be experienced right here and now. Because of this love we are protected and watched over and prayed for.

Paul says in Romans 8:37-39: “In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Chris Jesus our Lord.”


Where a mechanic is characterized by his ability to fix a car, the Church is characterized firstly by love, and secondly by unity. This refers to both unity with God, and unity to one another. As we are loved by Christ, we are united to Christ; as we are united to Christ, we are united to fellow Christians.

This theme comes up through most of this passage, but prominently in verses 11; 20-24. Verse 21 says, “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us.” Jesus says elsewhere, “if you have seen me you have seen the Father,” so all along there has been a very close connection between the Father and Son, and in fact they are united as one. John says, “In the beginning was the Word, the Word was with God and the Word was God and then became flesh and made his dwelling amongst us.” In Philippians 2 Paul says that Jesus was in the form of God and didn’t regard equality with God something, as my NRSV translates it, to be exploited. So the unity between the Father and the Son is literally as absolutely one being. Two persons, but one being. The Father and the Son, both the one God and yet individuals.

And this is the unity we are taken up into. Just think about that for a second.

We’re not absorbed into God that we become literally God ourselves, but we are welcomed into that same unity between the Father and the Son. Jesus prays, “Holy Father, may they be one, as we are one.”

Jesus also prayed that believers would united to one another. Verses 22-24 say, “The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I them and you in me, that they become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”

We are united to God as the Father is united to the Son. This same unity overflows into our relationships with other Christ-followers. We become united to one another, we become one, as we become one with Jesus, as Jesus becomes one with the Father. Paul says that the Church is the Body of Christ – one body.

This unity is not caused, nor can it be created, by any human effort. It is entirely God’s work. As the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are united as one, one God and one Lord, yet three distinct persons, so we are taken up into that unity together. We can add nothing to this perfect unity, nor can we do anything to achieve it. It is only God who can unite us to himself; only God who can unite us to one another.

Looking at the Church today, I’m not sure if we can be seen as one body. There are approximately 41,000 Christian denominations in the world, from Roman Catholic, to Orthodox, to Baptist, to Seventh Day Adventist and so on. I personally don’t think different traditions means disunity, just because people have some varying beliefs, does not necessarily mean we are divided. But when these different traditions bicker and argue and even go to war with each other – which has happened – I think that is when we have a problem.

When the world sees the Church they must see a Church unified in love, and when they see that unity they will see Christ.


So the Church is characterized by love, unity and we’ll now look at the third aspect: mission. What I mean by mission is basically being proactive. Scriptural clearly teaches that God is proactive and  missional by nature. The sending of his Son, the election of Israel, the promise of redeeming the world at the end of the age. God didn’t just wait for us to get to him, he proactively came to us. He proactively seeks social justice, promising redemption to a broken word. God clearly at his core is concerned about mission.

This passage talks about us going out into the world. V. 18 says “As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.” Hence, the Church needs to reflect God’s missional heart by being missional in this world. We cannot wait for non-Christians to come to us, we have to go to them. We have to go out into this world to reveal the Good News of Jesus Christ. The word Gospel literally means Good News. Christians in this regard are meant to be like journalists. Journalists with news will not be quiet – they will tell the news! So Christians who have this news – the best news – must tell others!

John uses the word, kosmos, which means world more than any other New Testament book, and mostly in this very chapter, so it’s a big theme for him.[6] However, he was it was never meant to be easy for a Christian in this world.

Jesus said, “I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.” (vv. 14-16)

We are not of this world. Because of our unity with Christ we have swept up into something far more significant than anything in this world. So the world reacts against Christians. In this passage Jesus is saying that we have inherited his mission, it is not our mission. We are merely continuing his mission.[7] But we know how Jesus’ mission ended. It ended on the cross.

Matthew 16 tells us that we must take up our cross and follow Jesus. Is this a simple action? No! It takes all of who we are. We have just finished a sermon series where Ian taught us about the cries Jesus made upon the cross, which ended with Easter last week. The cross was as far opposite to fun as I can possibly imagine. Nothing could be further away from a pleasant situation than being on a cross. There is nothing worse. But that is the sort of faith that is required of Christians, of each one of us.

We hang a cross around our necks, but do we carry it on our backs?

If it were meant to be easy, why would Jesus pray for protection over us?

He also prays that we be sanctified, he says, “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sake I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.” (Vv. 17-19)

That word, hagiazō, meaning “to consecrate,” “cleanse, purify, sanctify,” essentially means to be set apart for a particular use.[8] To be sanctified means to be set apart. But this does not mean to be removed entirely. We are to be salt and light in this world, positively influencing the world from the inside. The Church has been set apart from this world to go into the world, taking up the cross, facing hatred and persecution to preach the Gospel.

But I want to make something clear: We cannot do mission without unity, and we cannot have unity without love. See how they all fit together?

We are loved by God, united to God, and so we love each other and are united to one other. But we must also love the world and go into the world to bring more into this unity we have with God. Jesus says in verse 21-23, “so that they may be one…that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”

The third characteristic of the Church is radical unity. The world will see the Church and see unity, and because of this unity will see Christ’s love.

So what I’m trying to emphasize is this: there needs to be something different about the Church. When people see the Church, what will they see? Will they see another group of people, or will they see a people marked by love, unity and mission?

Back to the story of the RAC mechanic. There were certain things that characterized him as an RAC mechanic. Firstly, he turned up in an RAC car, he was wearing RAC clothes, he knew what he was doing with cars, he knew how to fix my car, and then he fixed it! I asked him to do something, and he did it.

There are also meant to be certain things that make the Church recognizable as the Church. These things reflect the very heartbeat of God. The Church must be characterized by love, unity, mission.

How do we do that though?

How can the Church be recognizable?

1. We must first love God. There is no point in doing anything unless we respond to God in love. This is not just a happy feeling sort of love. As I said before, it’s not meant to be easy as a Christian. To respond with love to God means willing to die for God, giving your life over to God.

But I can tell you that it is the single greatest thing you can do. When you give your life entirely over to God, you experience such joy and peace, such relationship with God. It’s incredible.

We do this by praying to God, “God take it all, help me to dedicate all I am and have to you.” This means repenting. Repenting simply means turning. We turn away from our earthly, human, sinful ways, and we turn towards God and God’s ways.

2. We also love God by loving others. Jesus said the greatest commandment was to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love your neighbour as you love yourself. This means placing others before ourselves. Paul says that we should be like Christ, who though being in the very nature God became human and became servant to humanity, even dying for humanity. Jesus tells us to love one another as he has loved us. He has loved us by dying for us. Hence, the world will see love when we love one another by being willing to serve and even die for one another.

The Church must be characterized by love and unity. Jesus says in John 13 that our love for one another will prove to the world that we are Christ’s disciples. So the Church must be recognizable by our love for one another. This must be a radical love for one another, this is willing to die for one another.

3. Another way of being unified is removing discrimination. Paul says in Galatians that there is no longer Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female. Rather, there is Christ. When we see one another, we see Christ. That means we must treat one another with absolute respect, complete forgiveness, total acceptance. This is not always easy. But the Church is recognizable by welcoming and accepting each and every single person for who they are.

Philip Yancey once told a story of a prostitute who had just hit rock bottom. When asked if she had considered going to church, she responded by laughing and saying, “They’ll just judge me more.” I think that’s a very sad story. The love and unity given to the Church by Jesus Christ means loving everyone no matter what.

4. The Church must be characterized by being proactive and missional. It is by loving the world, not by fearing the world, or separating one’s self from the world, that we can witness to the world.[9]

If we are too much a part of the world, the world does not see Christ; if we are too distant from the world, the world does not see love. It is in loving the world while not becoming too much a part of the world that the world can be emancipated.

This means seeking the prosperity of the nation we’re in, it means seeking social justice – there are more slaves today then they’re ever has been in history – and chasing the end of poverty, it means helping your neighbours when they need it, working your hardest at work despite a grumpy and unpleasant boss, it means living the Gospel, proclaiming through your actions and through your words. It means having integrity to stand up for what you believe.

To be the Church is radical.


The Church can be no less, nor any more, than the pulse of God, reflecting his very heartbeat: love, unity, mission….love, unity, mission….love, unity, mission.

Being loved by God, we must love God and others. Through doing so, we will be united with God and with fellow Christians. We then go out seeking to fulfil Christ’s commission on this Earth, praying that the Church may grow and permeate society, and through our love and unity, the world will see eternal life and that many will seek that life and devote their lives to Christ as we devote our lives to Christ.

God has asked us to do something – are we going to do it?

[1] John MacArthur, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary (Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 2007). 322.

[2] Bruce Milne, The Message of John (Nottingham, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1993). 239.

[3] Andreas J. Kostenberger, John (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004). 487 – 88.

[4] Kostenberger, John. 490 – 491.

[5] William D. Mounce, The Analytical Lexicon to the Greek New Testament (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1993). 450.

[6] Minear, “John 17:1-11.” 178.

[7] Milne, The Message of John. 245.

[8] MacArthur. 323.

[9] Minear, “Evangelism, Ecumenism, and John Seventeen.” 12.

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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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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[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.

A Catholic Journey: An Exploration of the Theological Journey Between the Two Vatican Councils


The Roman Catholic Church has been an ever-moving, ever-changing entity, with theological shifts marked by drama and often a great Council. The Council of Trent in the 16th century – a reaction to the Protestant Reformation – paved the way for the doctrines dogmatized three centuries later at the First Vatican Council, the 20th Catholic Council. Vatican 1 accomplished only two of its proposed 53 doctrines before the Council was abruptly ceased in 1870, but is associated with the dogmatization of papal infallibility and its heavy reaction to modernism and liberalism. Its decrees went practically unchallenged until the mid-war years of the 1920s and 1930s, when personal spirituality grew, as did the role of the laity in the church as a result. By the 1950s the church was battling a myriad of political and social shifts, and Pope John XXIII – expected to merely be a temporary pope – announced the Second Vatican Council in 1958 (to begin in 1962), to continue and finalize the First, and to influence the Church to open itself up to the world. This Council, the biggest in Catholic history, was remarkably influential, encouraging themes of ecumenism, ecclesiology and equality, among others. This essay analyses the historical and theological journey between these two important Councils, assessing what influenced their occurrences and theological declarations, before concluding with assessing the influence they have on the Roman Catholic Church today.

A Theological Journey

Regarded as occupying the throne of St. Peter longer than anyone except Peter Himself, Pope Pius IX (1846-1878) began politically liberal before being removed from authority for 18 months after a revolution in the Papal States in 1848. Upon returning, his liberalism dramatically different, he only held control of the States until 1860 when the Italian king, Victor Emmanuel, forced Pius to hand them all except Rome over to him.[1] Pius’ career is notably a reaction against modernism and liberalism, dogmatizing the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin in 1854, influencing Ecuador to declare Christianity as the only legal faith in 1862, and publishing Syllabus of Errors in 1864, in which he condemned rationalism, socialism, separation of the Church and state,[2] and the idea that “Protestantism is nothing more than another form of the same true Christian religion.”[3]

His reaction to modernism and liberalism is most obvious in the announcement of the First Vatican Council in 1867,[4] in response to the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars as well as questions surrounding the authority of the church.[5] As McIntire notes, “Vatican 1 sought to define authoritatively the church’s doctrine concerning the faith and the church, especially in response to new challenges from secular philosophical and political movements and theological liberalism.”[6]

Vatican 1 was to be the 20th Council, preceded by the Council of Trent (1545-1563) which was a reaction to the Protestant Reformation enhancing papal authority, elevating tradition and celibacy, reiterating the seven sacraments and emphasizing the propitiatory sacrificial nature of the transubstantiated Eucharist, among others. Vatican 1 was a push to dogmatize “the papal infallibility that was already inherent in the Council of Trent.”[7] 700 bishops were present for the opening of the Council in December 1869, with 100 from America and 60 from the Eastern Rite.[8]

Pius’ document Dei Filius, published on the third session of the Council hinted at his desire for a dogmatized papal infallibility, in which it states,

For the doctrine of faith, which God has revealed, is handed down, not as some philosophical discovery capable of being perfected by human intelligence, but as a divine deposit committed to the spouse of Christ to be faithfully protected and infallibly declared.[9]

Some, such as Archbishop Manning and Bishop Senestrey appreciated this desire, vowing to see papal infallibility dogmatized,[10] but others, notably John Henry Newman and Johann Ignaz von Dӧllinger, attacked the idea. Newman argued the doctrine was being accepted too hastily and Dӧllinger argued that previous popes had disagreed with one another, hence the doctrine was contradictory.[11] The doctrine was, however, voted in on the 18th of July 1870 and Pastor Aeternus was published, stating,

We teach and define as a divinely revealed dogma that when the Roman pontiff speaks ex cathedra (that is, when he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole church in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, by virtue of his supreme apostolic authority), he possesses, by the divine assistance promised to him in Peter, that infallibility which the divine Redeemer willed his church to enjoy in defining doctrine concerning faith or morals.[12]

The English representative in Rome, Odo Russell, in a letter to Lord Granville lamented, “the supreme absolutism of Rome at last [has] been obtained, established and dogmatized for which the Papacy has contended more than a thousand years.”[13] Any form of ecumenism meant returning to Roman Catholicism and “did not involve any real compromise with Eastern Rite Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants.”[14] The Council ended abruptly when Victor Emmanuel invaded Rome on the 20th of September 1870 to ensure a united Italy. Pius locked himself in the Vatican and excommunicated anyone involved in capturing Rome. The Council completed only two of the 53 proposed documents, and was adjourned indefinitely due to the Franco-Prussian War.[15]

The doctrines established at Vatican 1 remained unchallenged until the inter-war years of the 1920s and 1930s. Despite incredible social and political difficulties that these years brought, many Catholics cultivated spiritual lifestyles which led to a greater emphasis on and participation of the laity within the church. Further, the ever-encroaching modernism caused theologians to articulate a more individual and personal faith, including the encouragement of participation and individual study.[16] In 1923 Pope Pius XI suggested a council in response to World War One and in 1958 Pope Pius XII hinted at a council to conclude the work of Vatican 1.[17] Yet it was not until after he died that the idea of a council became a possibility.

With the gradual increase of laity participation, it seemed the church was heading in a somewhat liberal direction,[18] and the strong hierarchical structures dogmatized at Vatican 1 began to be seen as emphasizing inequality amongst church members, “not only because among the faithful some are clergy and some are laity, but because there is in the church the power from God by which it is given to some to sanctify, teach, and govern, and to others it is not.”[19] Theologians argued this structure was not existent until post-Apostolic times.[20]

After Pius XII died in 1958, the cardinals had difficulty in electing a new pope, and so elevated Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli to the position at 76 years old, who was merely expected to be temporary[21] and “keep the chair of Peter warm.”[22] He adopted the name John XXIII and desiring for the church to be more involved in the world, quickly announced the Second Vatican Council. 1959-1962 were thus awash with literature debating the announcement, such as the Bishop of Paderborn’s Ecumenical Council of the Church and Hans Küng’s Council, Reform and Renewal.[23]

The 1960s brought a great deal of changes in society, seemingly bringing a process of “dechristianisation.”[24] Catholics were divided on how to respond to these changes, but an element of pluralism became evident.[25] As a result, “the intention was not to erect a Berlin Wall around the faith…but to inaugurate a continuous process of internal debate, renewal and evangelisation,”[26] and opening itself up to the world, unlike Vatican 1 which closed itself.[27] The Council was to give a greater sense of identity in face of all this,[28] and 2540 delegates[29] met over four sessions between 1962 and 1965 to revolutionise the church’s approach to ecclesiology and ecumenism. John XXIII died after the first session, but Paul VI continued the Council.[30] In 1964 Euw wrote that the Council “is accomplishing a thorough re-formation…For the Protestant too this phenomenon should have great meaning,” and that “this Tridentine and post-Trent theology of the Church is being radically reappraised and ruthlessly revised by the Council.”[31]

The Council discussed a range of topics, including implementing a non-Latin liturgy,[32] tradition,[33] and as a result of the Council, 16 documents were published, with two in particular as being seen as “twin pillars”: Lumen Gentium (“The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church”) and Gaudium et spes (“Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World”).[34] These two documents asserted, along with the other 14 documents, that the Church is a mystery, more so than an institution; a People of God, more than hierarchy; a servant; communion; ecumenical, rather than the Catholic Church as the only true Church; and an eschatological community, awaiting the coming of the Kingdom of God.[35] Lumen Gentium asserted that the laity are called to live in the world “by God so that by carrying out their own special function in the spirit of the gospel they may work for the sanctification of the world.”[36] Furthermore, Gaudium et spes, thoroughly aimed out at the world, finds at its core a sense of community,[37] and it is in these documents that Protestants were first recognized as Christian.[38]

McBrien helpfully compares the theological changes implemented by Vatican 2, particularly those implemented by Vatican 1:[39]

Pre-Vatican 2                                                         Vatican 2

Church as institution.                                         Church as mystery.

Church as hierarchy.                                          Church as People of God.

Mission: Word and sacrament.                       Mission: Word, sacrament and service.

Church as absolute monarchy.                       Church as communion.

One, true Church.                                                 Church as ecumenical community.

Triumphalism (Church as Kingdom).           Church as eschatological community.

Hence, quite a drastic shift is obvious.

Journey Since Vatican 2

Oviedo describes two parties who have responded negatively in the aftermath of Vatican 2. The first is the “Disappointed Party,” who expected much more than what eventuated; the second, the “Alarmed Party,” who felt too much was changing, too quickly.[40] Hagstrom notes that even today the teachings are not well known.[41] However, closer inspection will reveal that the Council influenced a lot. Smith argues that lots of activity, joint prayer gatherings and ecumenical discussions occurred immediately after.[42] The generation of Catholics of the time experienced “a sense of euphoria similar to the time of the Enlightenment…Many people in the Church felt a sense of freedom and progress as never before.”[43] Some ecumenical progress, albeit minimal, has been made. The Pope has met with Anglican leaders, evangelical protestants and has engaged with social and political issues.[44] It should, therefore, be seen that since Vatican 2, the Catholic Church’s engagement with ecumenism and with the world has increased. Furthermore, more laypeople are assisting services, and more Catholics are reading the bible for themselves.[45]

An influential thinker was Schillebeeckx. Perceiving a greater biblical slant in the documents of Vatican 2, Schillebeeckx poured over and incorporated recent biblical studies into his theology regarding the meaning of Christian faith.[46] Furthermore, he stated shortly after the Council, “The fundamental gain of this constitution is that it broke the clergy’s monopoly of the liturgy,”[47] and then, in 1989, “the co-responsibility of all believers for the church on the basis of our baptism and the Spirit essentially includes the participation of all believers in decisions relating to church government.”[48] Hence, he was influenced by Vatican 2’s encouragement of the ministry of the layperson.

Vatican 2 expressed openness to greater ecumenical discussion, furthered by theologians such as Schillebeeckx, among others in post-conciliar years. Gaudium et spes notes that “the Church has always had the duty of scrutinizing the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the gospel,”[49] and “under the light of Christ…the Council wishes to speak to all men in order to shed light on the mystery of man and to co-operate in finding the solution to the outstanding problems of our time.”[50] McIntire argues that the solution to the divisions is not returning to Rome, but in an open future.[51] Furthermore, in light of the efforts made already, Sundberg is convinced there is a future for ecumenism.[52] Others agree, some going further to call for a Third Vatican Council.[53] The controversial Catholic writer, Hans Küng was among them, in 2001, arguing that the Church “should convene a Vatican 3, which will lead this church from Roman Catholicism to an authentic Catholicity.”[54]


The ambitious Pope Pius IX has clearly had significant and ongoing influence on the Church, even to this day. His reaction to a growing modernism and a push for the separation of church and state resulted in the First Vatican Council and its defining dogmatization of papal infallibility. The Council put in place strong hierarchical positions, which eventually made inequality within the Church to become obvious, and rejected any ecumenical approach that would entail acceptance of Protestantism as Christian. Though it was cut short in 1870, the main themes were picked up again at the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, though through a different perspective. Initiated by Pope John XXIII and Paul VI, this Council responded to a growing need for the Church to open itself up with the world. The Church recognized Protestantism and Orthodoxy as Christian, encouraged ecumenism, elevated the role of the laity and deemphasized the hierarchical structure of the church. The Council’s influence has since encouraged a greater participation in political and social issues in the world and engaged in a greater amount of discussion with non-Catholics. The influence of these great Councils has been obvious and it is clear their influence will continue for many years to come.


Atkin, Nicholas, and Frank Tallett. Priests, Prelates & People: A History of European Catholicism since 1750. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Chadwick, Owen. Catholicism and History: The Opening of the Vatican Archives. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978.

Council, Second Vatican. Dogmatic Constitution on the Church. Melbourne: A.C.T.S Publications, 1964.

Council, Second Vatican. Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. Melbourne: A.C.T.S. Publications, 1965.

Council, Second Vatican. “Sacrosanctum Concilium.” In The Christian Theology Reader, edited by Alister McGrath. London: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.

Euw, Charles K. Von. “The Second Vatican Council: A First-Hand Report.” Andover Newton Quarterly 4, no. 3 (1964): 15-22.

Hagstrom, Aurelie A. The Emerging Laity: Vocation, Mission, and Spirituality. New York: Paulist Press, 2010.

Hill, Jonathan. The New Lion Handbook: The History of Christianity. Oxford: Lion Hudson plc., 2007.

Kennedy, Philip. Schillebeeckx. Collegeville, USA: The Liturgical Press, 1993.

Kung, Hans. The Catholic Church: A Short History. New York: Modern Library, 2001.

Manschrek, Clyde L. A History of Christianity: Readings in the History of the Church. Vol. 2. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House Company, 1964.

McBrien, Richard P. “If Pope Has Final Say, Why Fuss with Councils?” In Report on the Church: Catholicism after Vatican 2, edited by Richard P. McBrien. New York: HarperCollins Publications, 1992.

McBrien, Richard P. The Church: The Evolution of Catholicism. New York: HarperCollins, 2008.

McGrath, Alister. The Christian Theology Reader. 4 ed. London: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.

McIntire, C. T. “Vatican Council 1.” In Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, edited by Walter A. Elwell. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1984.

McIntire, C. T. “Vatican Council 2.” In Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, edited by Walter A. Elwell. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1984.

Neuhaus, Richard John. “What Really Happened at Vatican 2.” First Things October (2008): 23-27.

Oviedo, Lluis. “Should We Say That the Second Vatican Council Has Failed?” The Heythrop Journal 49, no. 1 (2008): 716-730.

Pius. “Syllabus of Errors.” In A History of Christianity: Readings in the History of the Church, edited by Clyde L. Manschreck, 2. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House Company, 1964.

________. “Dei Filius.” In The Christian Theology Reader, edited by Alister McGrath. London: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.

________. “Pastor Aeternus.” In The Christian Theology Reader, edited by Alister McGrath. London: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.

Russel, Odo. “Russell to Granville.” In The Roman Question: Extracts from the Despatches of Odo Russell from Rome, 1858-1870, edited by N. Blakiston. London: Chapman and Hall, 1962.

Schillebeeckx, E. Vatican 2: The Real Achievement. London: Sheed and Ward, 1967.

Schillebeeckx, Edward. Church: The Human Story of God. London: SCM Press, 1989.

Smit, Peter-Ben. “The Developing Understanding of Authority and Primacy in Anglican-Roman Catholic-Old Catholic Dialogue after the Second Vatican Council.” International Journal for the Study of the Christian Church 8, no. 3 (2008): 211-231.

Smith, Virginia. “Catholicism Welcomes the World.” In Vatican 2 Today: Calling Catholics to Holiness and Service, edited by Judy Ball and Joan McKamey. Ohio: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2005.

Sundberg, Walter. “Does Ecumenism Have a Future?” Word and World 18, no. 2 (1998): 172-78.

Wintz, Jack, and John Feister. “Road Map for the Future: Teachings of Vatican 2.” In Vatican 2 Today: Calling Catholics to Holiness and Service, edited by Judy Ball and Joan McKamey. Ohio: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2005.

[1] Jonathan Hill, The New Lion Handbook: The History of Christianity (Oxford: Lion Hudson plc., 2007). 363.

[2] Clyde L. Manschrek, A History of Christianity: Readings in the History of the Church, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House Company, 1964). 366-68.

[3] Pius, “Syllabus of Errors,” in A History of Christianity: Readings in the History of the Church, ed. Clyde L. Manschreck(Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House Company, 1964). 372. In other words, that Protestantism was certainly not Christian.

[4] Manschrek. 368.

[5] Alister McGrath, The Christian Theology Reader, 4 ed. (London: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011). 30.

[6] C. T. McIntire, “Vatican Council 1,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter A. Elwell(Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1984). 1237.

[7] Manschrek. 115.

[8] Nicholas Atkin and Frank Tallett, Priests, Prelates & People: A History of European Catholicism since 1750 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003). 137.

[9] Pius, “Dei Filius,” in The Christian Theology Reader, ed. Alister McGrath(London: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011). 32.

[10] Atkin and Tallett. 137.

[11] Hill. 364. Dӧllinger sought a document rumoured to be held within the archives. This document, Liber Diurnus Romanorum Pontificum, was believed to be a daily handbook of the papal chancellery between 750 and 1050 and was believed to contain evidence that the 7th century Pope Honorius was guilty of heresy and implies his excommunication by later popes. Thus Dӧllinger wanted the document to further his argument against papal infallibility. Following the Council, there was much controversy surrounding the documents held within the Vatican Library and Archives. When the Italian army invaded in 1870, it was feared that either a) the documents would fall under State ownership and thus sensitive material would then become public knowledge, or b) Vatican officials would destroy any sensitive documents before they were made public. All documents henceforth were impossible to get to, and so Liber Diurnus was never used against the doctrine of papal infallibility, despite the archives eventually opening under Pope Leo XIII (Owen Chadwick, Catholicism and History: The Opening of the Vatican Archives (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978). 72 – 108.

[12] Pius, “Pastor Aeternus.” in The Christian Theology Reader, ed. Alister McGrath (London: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011). 432.

[13] Odo Russel, “Russell to Granville,” in The Roman Question: Extracts from the Despatches of Odo Russell from Rome, 1858-1870, ed. N. Blakiston(London: Chapman and Hall, 1962). 459.

[14] Atkin and Tallett. 138.

[15] Ibid. 139-140. Cf. McIntire. 1237.

[16] Atkin and Tallett. 232-33.

[17] Ibid. 289.

[18] Ibid. 233.

[19] McGrath. 389. Furthermore, as Hagstrom discusses, laity were seen as merely children, not the subject of conciliar teaching for 400 years, (Aurelie A. Hagstrom, The Emerging Laity: Vocation, Mission, and Spirituality (New York: Paulist Press, 2010). 11) and insisted with greater fervour that Roman Catholicism was the only source of true salvation, (Richard P. McBrien, The Church: The Evolution of Catholicism (New York: HarperCollins, 2008). 8).

[20] McGrath. 389.

[21] Atkin and Tallett. 289.

[22] Hagstrom. 10.

[23] Atkin and Tallett. 290. This announcement came as a shock to many, as McBrien wrote on July 15, 1966, “The Second Vatican Council must have been a puzzling phenomenon for the Catholic who had always regarded the Church as an absolute monarchy. After all, in 1870, the First Vatican Council defined the infallibility of the pope. Presumably that should have been the council to end all councils.” (Richard P. McBrien, “If Pope Has Final Say, Why Fuss with Councils?,” in Report on the Church: Catholicism after Vatican 2, ed. Richard P. McBrien(New York: HarperCollins Publications, 1992). 3).

[24] Atkin and Tallett. 265.

[25] Ibid. 266.

[26] Ibid. 265.

[27] Ibid. 292. As Atkin and Tallett argue, “Vatican 1 in 1870 was an exercise in trench-digging, an attempt to establish the Church as a fortress against an unregenerate and irreligious outside world. Vatican 2 was conceived less as an event than as an initiation of a process which would harmonise the Church and the political and social environment,” (ibid. 292).

[28] Hill. 434.

[29] Including over 1000 from across Europe, 956 from America, 279 from Africa, 300 or so from Asia and a surprisingly small 20% were Italian, traditionally the most prominent, (Atkin and Tallett. 291).

[30] McGrath. 78.

[31] Charles K. Von Euw, “The Second Vatican Council: A First-Hand Report,” Andover Newton Quarterly 4, no. 3 (1964). 15.

[32] Which received great criticism from Conservatives who argued Latin united people from many nations and changing it would remove the mystique. This change was pushed heavily by those involved in missions, such Duschak from the Philippines who argued that mass should have any European elements entirely stripped away and should be available for inter-faith services, (Atkin and Tallett. 292-93). The document Sacrosanctum Concilium, published during the 2nd session of Vatican 2 offered a series of theological statements as well as practical recommendations regarding the Eucharist, linking the sacrament with the everyday life of the church, (Second Vatican Council, “Sacrosanctum Concilium,” in The Christian Theology Reader, ed. Alister McGrath(London: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011). 486-87).

[33] Which, contrarily to Trent, was decided as being important in biblical interpretation, but not another source of revelation, and hence not equal to the Bible, (Atkin and Tallett. 293).

[34] McBrien, The Church: The Evolution of Catholicism. 153, 182.

[35] Second Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Melbourne: A.C.T.S Publications, 1964). and Second Vatican Council, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Melbourne: A.C.T.S. Publications, 1965).

[36] Council, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church. n.31. This clearly sets Vatican 2 apart from Vatican 1 and Trent.

[37] Cf. Council, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. n.19, 22 and 32.

[38] McIntire, “Vatican Council 2.” 1240.

[39] McBrien, The Church: The Evolution of Catholicism. 181.

[40] Lluis Oviedo, “Should We Say That the Second Vatican Council Has Failed?,” The Heythrop Journal 49, no. 1 (2008). 716.

[41] Hagstrom. 1. Hagstrom argues this is so, “because the sixteen documents produced by the council are not exactly beach reading.” (p.1).

[42] Virginia Smith, “Catholicism Welcomes the World,” in Vatican 2 Today: Calling Catholics to Holiness and Service, ed. Judy Ball and Joan McKamey(Ohio: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2005). 44.

[43] Oviedo. 718.

[44] For example, in 1966 the Archbishop of Canterbury of the Anglican Church met with Pope Paul VI to establish the “Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission,” which has published several publications since formulation. (Peter-Ben Smit, “The Developing Understanding of Authority and Primacy in Anglican-Roman Catholic-Old Catholic Dialogue after the Second Vatican Council,” International Journal for the Study of the Christian Church 8, no. 3 (2008). The ARCIC published The Church as Communion in 1990, The Gift of Authority in 1998, and in 2007 released a document on ecclesiology. (ibid. 213.).

In 1994, the Catholic Church and evangelical Protestants published a joint document on ecumenical ecclesiology. (Walter Sundberg, “Does Ecumenism Have a Future?,” Word and World 18, no. 2 (1998). 176.

In 1979, the Pope visited America, where he stated, “I want to greet all Americans without distinction. I want to tell everyone that the Pope is your friend and a servant of your humanity.” (Jack Wintz and John Feister, “Road Map for the Future: Teachings of Vatican 2,” in Vatican 2 Today: Calling Catholics to Holiness and Service, ed. Judy Ball and Joan McKamey(Ohio: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2005). 6). The Catholic Church engaged with social and political issues, in 1983 on war and peace, 1986 on US economy, and 1999 and 2003 on civil responsibility. (ibid. 7).

[45] Wintz and Feister. 6. Interestingly, as laity involvement has increased, ordained ministers have decreased.

[46] Philip Kennedy, Schillebeeckx (Collegeville, USA: The Liturgical Press, 1993). 13, 67.

[47] E. Schillebeeckx, Vatican 2: The Real Achievement (London: Sheed and Ward, 1967). 27.

[48] Edward Schillebeeckx, Church: The Human Story of God (London: SCM Press, 1989). 209.

[49] Council, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. n.4.

[50] Ibid. n.10.

[51] C. T. McIntire, “Vatican Council 2,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter A. Elwell(Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001). 1240.

[52] Sundberg. 176.

[53] Richard John Neuhaus, “What Really Happened at Vatican 2,” First Things October, no. (2008). 24.

[54] Hans Kung, The Catholic Church: A Short History (New York: Modern Library, 2001). 200.

Christology in the Fourth Gospel


The Fourth Gospel presents a more explicit Christology than do the Synoptic Gospels, with several unique contributions to New Testament Christology, and, having the background of the historical presentation of Jesus, John expounds and furthers theological themes. As shall be seen throughout this essay, a major concern for John is the identity and origin of Jesus, who is presented as having the very identity of God, as emphasized in his “I Am” sayings and reference to the “Word” in the prologue. Titles given to Jesus, such as “Son of God” and “Messiah” infer both his messianic and divine characteristics, and John’s emphasis on Jesus as envoy, sent from God further discusses Jesus’ identity and messianic mission. Also, John portrays Jesus as having the right to prerogatives reserved to God alone. This essay shall analyze each of these major themes,[1] discussing the significance of this Christology, as well as its significance in comparison to the Synoptics, discussing major differences between the two traditions.

The Christology of the Fourth Gospel

Keener states that John’s Gospel presents a “radical Christology,” which “enabled the Johannine Christians ‘to undertake their radical commitment to God in the face of dire risk.’”[2] It was so radical, in fact, that the evangelists’ Christology is virtually inseparable from his theology.[3] Barrett further notes that when in looking at or hearing Jesus, you see and hear the Father.[4] In John’s missionary purposes to present Jesus as Christ to the Jews, he used familiar themes (Messiah, “Son of God,” “I Am,” etc.) before applying a Christocentric theological evaluation of these, in light of the new covenant, in which Jesus is savior and way to God the Father. Furthermore, through doing so, Jesus is presented as the glory of God (1:14; cf. 2:11; 11:4; 12:23).[5]

The prologue, the first eighteen verses of the Gospel, often called a hymn, present a unique Christology. The logoV (logos) is unique to this passage, not mentioned elsewhere,[6] and carries several connotations. In Jewish literature, it represented God’s creative self-expression,[7] in Greek philosophy, the Word often referred to divine truth, and also linked to Jewish Wisdom traditions. Wisdom, commonly personified, was present in creation, and in the Wisdom of Solomon, this Wisdom labors alongside humanity to bring them toward God.[8] Hence, by labeling Jesus as the Word, John argues that Jesus’ identity is not to be found in creation itself, but in the very identity of God, and thus does not contradict Jewish monotheism.[9] Furthermore, where Genesis’ account of creation states that in the beginning was God, John states that in the beginning was the Word, and that Word became flesh.[10] Whilst this logoV is unique to this prologue, the themes presented in these initial verses are present throughout the Gospel,[11] and Mlakuzhyil argues these themes are repeated in the conclusion, thus “all the other theological themes must be seen in relation to the Christocentric themes given in the introduction and the conclusion.”[12]

Several titles are ascribed to Jesus through the Gospel, such as “Messiah” (or “Christ”), “Son of God,” “King of Israel,” and “Lord.” Where the Jews were expecting the Messiah to come as a powerful warrior and political leader to relieve them of oppression, Jesus’ messiaship is presented as the Suffering Servant. It was only in light of the resurrection that the disciples could remember and discern the spiritual power of his earthly ministry, and spiritual anointing.[13] Carrying messianic implications, “Son of God” connoted intimacy.[14] This phrase was not unique to Jewish tradition,[15] but John presented Jesus not as a son of god, rather, the Son of God, uniquely begotten of the one, true God.[16] “Son of Man” and “King of Israel” carried both messianic and eschatological overtones, and “Lord” (KurioV) was used in the LXX to translate titles referring to God alone.[17] However, Kӧstenberger argues that the titles themselves are not as important as the idea that Jesus has come as the fulfillment of these titles. He is the Messiah and promised King, i.e. rather than simply bringing bread, he is the heavenly bread (John 6).[18]

Another very prominent theme in John’s Christology is that of envoy and divine messenger. The verbs pempein and ajpostellein (lit. “To send”), are used 42 times in the Gospel, and is thus an important Christological element, detailing Christ’s nature as having been sent from God. In Greco-Roman culture, an envoy carried full authority of the one who sent him, a theme brought through.[19] As messenger, Jesus:[20]

  • Show’s God’s intentions (4:34; 7:28-9; 8:29).
  • Is the human equivalent of divine sender (10:36; 12:45; 17:3).
  • Will return to God, upon completing his mission (7:33; 16:5).
  • Acts not on his own initiative, but on that of God (5:30; 7:16; 8:16; 12:49).
  • Comes from above (3:31; 8:23), heaven (3:13; 6:33, 41, 42) and from God (3:2; 8:42f; 13:3; 16:27, 28; 17:8).
  • Is not of this world (8:23; 15:19; 17:14).
  • Makes the Father known (3:32; 8:38; 1:18; 5:37; 6:46; 15:15).
  • Speaks as though he has been taught, told and commanded (8:28; 7:16; 12:49, 50).

Furthermore, to respond to Jesus was to respond to the Father (5:23-24, 38; 12:44; 13:20).[21] Loader states,

The Son has come as revealer, sent by the Father and authorized by him to speak and act in accordance with what he has been shown and been commanded. He does this in the power and authority given him by the Father and in unity with him.[22]

Two other prominent themes prevalent in the Fourth Gospel, regarding Christology, are the “I Am” sayings and the divine prerogatives. There are two sets of seven “I Am” (ejgw eijmi) sayings, those followed by nouns (6:35; 8:12; 10:7; 10:11; 11:25; 14:6; 15:1), and those without (considered “absolute”, 4:26; 6:20; 8:24; 8:28; 8:58; 13:19; 18:5).[23] This links back to the prologue, in that Jesus’ identity is within God – he bears the name of God.[24] McGrath comments that “I Am” does not equal “I Am Yahweh,” but asserts that Jesus bears the very name of the one God.[25]

Regarding the divine prerogatives, there are instances where Jesus acts, receives or says he participates, in what is reserved for God alone. For example, the man born blind and is then healed by Jesus (ch.9) returns to Jesus, and worships him. Jesus, then, did not stop nor rebuke him. Bauckham asserts that worship was intimately connected with a monotheistic recognition of the one, true, divine identity.[26] Thus, he states, “the worship of Jesus indicates his inclusion in the identity of this one God.”[27] In the prologue, Jesus is called the “life” and “light” (1:4), of which Kӧstenberger interprets, “Being “life” puts Jesus on par with God, who alone is the life-giver; and being the “light” has both messianic overtones and sets Jesus against the dark moral backdrop of a reprobate, rebellious world that has rejected God’s law and therefore will also reject his Messiah.”[28] Furthermore, Jesus says he is the giver of life and judge of all (5:21, 22, 26).[29] What is important to note, however, that the issue the Jews had with Jesus’ activity was not with his actions per se, but with his claiming to be more than simply God’s agent. According to McGrath, “God could appoint agents, who would represent him and bear his full authority…It was only when someone had not been appointed by God tried to put himself on a par with God (like Adam, Pharaoh or the king of Babylon in the Jewish Scriptures) that equality with God became problematic and even blasphemous.”[30]

One traditional view of John’s relationship with the Synoptics is that John relies on the historical portrayal of Jesus prevalent in Matthew, Mark and Luke, using this as a presupposition for his more theological approach to Christology.[31] This view was criticized in 1938, by Percy Gardner-Smith, who received much support at the time.[32] However, it seems most contemporary commentators agree John advanced the presentation of the Synoptics, and thus the Fourth Gospel did not develop completely independently.[33] Three unique contributions John’s Christology make to New Testament Christology include Christ’s pre-existence, exaltation (even in his humanization) and Christ’s relationship to the Father.[34] His pre-existence is a major contribution, unique to John’s Gospel.[35] Furthermore, John makes explicit reference to Jesus’ divinity (1:1; Thomas’ confession), whereas the Synoptics do not.[36] Robert Kysar coined the phrase “Maverick Gospel” when referring to John,[37] yet subtle similarities abound. For example, some miracles are common to both traditions, as are titles,[38] and Kӧstenberger discusses “interlocking connections,” where John’s Gospel fills in details in the Synoptics.[39] In sum, John’s Christology relies on the historical portrayal of Jesus in the Synoptics, but fills in details, and then further develops theological themes, as discussed above.


In summary, John’s Gospel presents a rich theological narratological and biographical sketch of Jesus that neither contradicts Jewish understanding, nor the historiography of the Synoptics. The Gospel’s poetic prologue asserts Christ’s pre-existence and identity in the very nature of the monotheistic God of Israel, present and active in creation. The titles further assert this and his messianic characteristics, but rather than focusing on the titles, one must recognize Jesus’ fulfillment of these titles. Jesus is the messenger of God, sent from the Father to present the Father, and Jesus’ “I Am” sayings further portray his identity. Jesus’ identity, a major issue for John, is then further discussed in relation to Jesus and the prerogatives of God, such as giving of life and judging of sins, both of which Jesus claims authority to. John’s portrayal of Christ’s pre-existence and referring to Jesus as the logoV are unique to the Fourth Gospel, but similarities, such as some titles used of Jesus, have drawn the gap between the two traditions closer. John is written, presupposing the historical presentation of Jesus in the Synoptics, adding detail and advancing theology. His Christology is radical and drastically advances New Testament Christology.


Barrett, C. K. Essays on John. London: SPCK, 1982.

Bauckham, Richard. The Testimony of the Beloved Disciple. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007.

deSilva, David A. An Introduction to the New Testament. Nottingham: InterVarsity Press, 2004.

Harrison, Everett F. “The Christology of the Fourth Gospel in Relation to the Synoptics.” Bibliotheca Sacra October (1959): 303-309.

Keener, Craig S. The Gospel of John: A Commentary. Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2003.

Kostenberger, Andreas J. A Theology of John’s Gospel and Letters. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009.

Kysar, Robert. “Christology and Controversy: The Contributions of the Prologue of the Gospel of John to the New Testament Christology and Their Historical Setting.” Currents in Theology and Mission 5, no. 6 (1978): 348-364.

Lincoln, Andrew T. The Gospel According to Saint John. London: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2005.

Loader, William. The Christology of the Fourth Gospel. Germany: Verlag Peter Lang, 1989.

McGrath, James F. John’s Apologetic Christology. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Mlakuzhyil, George. The Christocentric Literary Structure of the Fourth Gospel. Rome: Editrice Pontificio Istituto Biblico, 1987.

Smith, T. C. “Christology of the Fourth Gospel.” Review & Expositor 71, no. Winter (1974): 19-30.

Sundberg, Albert C. Christology in the Fourth Gospel. Chicago: Chicago Society of Biblical Research, 1976.

[1] These themes are not a conclusive list of Christological motifs in the Fourth Gospel, but are, arguably, the major themes. Much literature has been written on this Gospel, and a complete discussion on these motifs would, due to the great richness and theological depth of this Gospel, take much more space than is permitted for this essay. When approaching a discussion on the Fourth Gospel, one can easily sympathize with John’s feelings in 21:25. The purpose of this essay is to give a brief overview on the more prominent Christological themes, particularly in relation to the Synoptics.

[2] Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of John: A Commentary (Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2003). 280. Keener further states that this radical Christology is the focus of the Gospel, and that, contrary to common ancient biographies, expounded no negative perspectives of Jesus.

[3] Cf. Andrew T. Lincoln, The Gospel According to Saint John (London: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2005). 59. Also, Andreas J. Kostenberger, A Theology of John’s Gospel and Letters (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009). 316. Lincoln states,

“As would be expected from an ancient biography, the Fourth Gospel’s focus is on the subject, Jesus of Nazareth. What would not necessarily be expected from an ancient biography, but what immediately becomes clear, is that its subject is so closely related to the God of Israel that the focus on Jesus of Nazareth also becomes a focus on God. What are reflected in the narrative’s actions and symbols are convictions not only about Jesus but about God, so that Christology and theology are intimately interwoven.” (p. 59).

[4] C. K. Barrett, Essays on John (London: SPCK, 1982). 16.

[5] Kostenberger. 294. Also, T. C. Smith, “Christology of the Fourth Gospel,” Review & Expositor 71, no. Winter (1974). 23.

[6] Richard Bauckham, The Testimony of the Beloved Disciple (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007). 241.

[7] Lincoln. 60.

[8] David A. deSilva, An Introduction to the New Testament (Nottingham: InterVarsity Press, 2004). 418. Sundberg states that the Gospel, having “developed in more intimate, personal terms, this material has as its background the heavenly servants-of-God and Wisdom motifs of the Jewish scriptures. It features full, total obedience and subservience to God but with such personal intimacy as is totally lacking from the more sedate, heavenly throne-room of the Jewish literature.” (Albert C. Sundberg, Christology in the Fourth Gospel (Chicago: Chicago Society of Biblical Research, 1976). 29.)

[9] Bauckham. 240. There would only be a contradiction if Jesus was neither associated with the same God of Israel, nor associated with creation (i.e. was not himself created). John presents Jesus as having the very same identity of the one, true God.

[10] Kostenberger. 316.

[11] Ibid. 167-7.

[12] George Mlakuzhyil, The Christocentric Literary Structure of the Fourth Gospel (Rome: Editrice Pontificio Istituto Biblico, 1987). 244.

[13] Smith. 23-4.

[14] Ibid. 25. Also, Lincoln. 65. Lincoln further notes the contrast with “Son of God,” and “children of God” when referring to believers, emphasizing Jesus’ unique sonship, and our adoption.

[15] In Greek literature, warriors were often called “sons of god,” the 70 Canaan gods were “sons of the chief god,” and in the Zhou dynasty in China, kings were called “sons of heaven.” (Keener. 291-2.)

[16] Ibid. 295.

[17] Ibid. 297. Thus, Lord was often reserved for divine titles. The vocative kurie was used elsewhere, usually translate as “Sir” or “Master,” but when nominative, was generally reserved for recognition of divine authority.

[18] Kostenberger. 316-18.

[19] According to Lincoln, “later rabbinic literature can speak of a person’s agent as the equivalent of that person.” (Lincoln. 60).

[20] Ibid. 60. And, William Loader, The Christology of the Fourth Gospel (Germany: Verlag Peter Lang, 1989). 30-32.

[21] Lincoln. 60.

[22] Loader. 33. He goes on to argue that “the most important and outstanding feature of the author’s Christology is the dominance of the pattern of the revealer envoy, the coming and going of the Son, from and to the Father,” (205). In light of the Father, Mlakuzhyil notes that pathr (father) is used 120 times, and, hence, a very prominent theme. (Mlakuzhyil. 243). As Loader further argues, the Father sends the Son, and authorizes the Son (Loader. 30-31).

[23] Bauckham. 243-44.

[24] Lincoln. 68. Cf. Exodus 3.

[25] James F. McGrath, John’s Apologetic Christology (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001). 106.

[26] Bauckham. 243.

[27] Ibid. 243.

[28] Kostenberger. 317.

[29] Cf. Bauckham. 241.

[30] McGrath. 78.

[31] Lincoln. 60.

[32] Smith. 20.

[33] Cf. Kostenberger. Kostenberger states,

Indeed, the strategic decisions made by John in relation to the Synoptic pattern are bold. They represent a conscious and theologically sophisticated effort to interpret for the reader the significance of Jesus’ coming and ministry in a way that builds on and is compatible with the Synoptic portrait, but yet advances beyond it and thus is able to deepen the reader’s understanding of Jesus’ mission in many ways…it is hard to imagine John’s gospel apart from the Synoptic pattern, which looms large and remains discernible in the way in which John has chosen to interpret, develop, and supplement it. (p. 563).

[34] Robert Kysar, “Christology and Controversy: The Contributions of the Prologue of the Gospel of John to the New Testament Christology and Their Historical Setting,” Currents in Theology and Mission 5, no. 6 (1978). 356.

[35] Everett F. Harrison, “The Christology of the Fourth Gospel in Relation to the Synoptics,” Bibliotheca Sacra October, no. (1959). 306.

[36] Ibid. 309.

[37] deSilva. 409.

[38] Harrison. 304.

[39] Kostenberger. 551.

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