Why I Am A Universalist, § 5: The Doctrine of God, Part 4: The Doctrine of Election (Section I)
Section I: A summary of Barth’s doctrine of election
Accepting Barth’s doctrine of election is not necessary for universalism to be theologically valid, but if one understands what Barth rightly accomplishes through this doctrine, universalism makes even more sense. The central thesis of Barth’s doctrine of election is that election, like revelation, finds its locus not in some abstract decision by God but rather in the concrete embodiment of God’s will in the person of Jesus the Christ. Consequently, any talk of election must find its center in the Son of God who is the one who elects humanity for himself and is himself elected by God to be the savior of the world. In other words, Jesus Christ is both the subject of election (the one who elects) and the object of election (the one elected).
Barth places the doctrine of election in the doctrine of God, because election reveals who God is. Barth can say this because all of God’s acts ad extra reveal who God is ad intra. God is a being-in-act—in which God is what God does—so the immanent Trinity and economic Trinity are identical (and yet remain distinct). But our only sure knowledge of God comes through the incarnation of Jesus Christ, as the Son of God who came to the world “for us and for our salvation.” Jesus Christ, as the Word of God incarnate, is the self-revelation of God, to which Scripture witnesses as the written Word of God. To put these points together, election is revealed to us in and through Jesus Christ alone; in that Jesus as the being of God ad extra reveals the being of the triune God ad intra, we can say that election is an act of God that is rooted in the being of God as the God who elects humanity for Godself and is thus both the electing God and elected human in Jesus Christ. Jesus embodies both sides of the dialectic: in that he is fully God, he is the God who elects humankind by taking on humanity in the hypostatic union; in that he is fully human, he is the man who is elected by God and vicariously represents all humanity in his flesh. To put it in simple terms, the orthodox definition of Jesus as fully God and fully human is the doctrine of election in a nutshell.
The ramification of this christocentric reorientation of election is that individual humans are elect only in Christ. Just as the atonement is not something that occurs apart from Christ’s atoning work in his life, death, and resurrection, so too election is not something that occurs apart from Jesus Christ. Jesus was not just symbolic of the rest of humanity. Instead, just as in atonement our sins were actually taken on by Jesus and thus nailed to the cross, so too we must say that in Jesus all human persons were actually there in his person. Jesus was the one man for many. We often speak of this as the substitutionary atonement—which is indeed true—but it has to begin with election, because election is the primal divine decree that determines that God will be God for us and the humanity will be humanity for God.
It was the major mistake of much classical theology to separate election as a divine decree apart from the concretization of God’s divine will in Jesus Christ. By making election a protological decision—in which God decided prior to creation who would be saved and who would be damned—classical theologians predetermined the extent and efficacy of Christ’s atoning work. They felt justified in doing so because they did not view Jesus as the self-revelation of God—and thus the norm for all knowledge of God—but instead viewed Scripture as a collection of propositional truths. Consequently, if Scripture speaks of an elect people of God, they felt it was proper for them to elaborate a theology of election independent from any other doctrine—independent, even, from the doctrine of God.
Lastly, Barth’s doctrine of election leads him to affirm double predestination or double election. God does indeed reject and elect, damn and save, but both sides of this dialectic occur—or, rather, occurred—in Jesus Christ. Jesus was doubly predestined for rejection and election, for damnation on the cross and eternal life beyond the tomb. Because we are all in Jesus—because God elected all of humanity in the assumption of humanity in the incarnation—we are all involved in what occurs in the person of Jesus. This is what one must affirm in order to hold fast to the substitutionary atonement. Christ is the vicarious mediator for all humanity or else Christ is nothing but a moral exemplar who shows humanity how to earn their righteousness before God. If we rule out the latter—as we must—we are forced to grapple with the implications of Christ’s role as vicar, as mediator, between God and humanity.
In other words, for Barth, election is the ground and foundation for reconciliation. We cannot speak about Jesus Christ as the one who reconciles us to God apart from the work of election which takes place in and through him as the electing God and elected human.