Predestination: Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Election (Audio, Video & Notes from Moltmann’s #KBC2015 Lecture)

Professor Moltmann gave a powerful lecture on Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Election at the 2015 Karl Barth Conference. Photo credit: Me.

The 2015 Karl Barth Conference at Princeton Theological Seminary was a one of a kind experience for me. I got to immerse myself in theological lectures and conversations with people who know a lot more about theology than me. I made new friends and got to meet in real life several people who I had previously only connected with online. And I had an unexpected opportunity to talk one on one with Jürgen Moltmann when I came downstairs for a cup of coffee that Sunday morning (the day of his lecture). I reminded him about my letter to him last year concerning universalism and thanked him for his reply. He said that his lecture that night would be on the same sections of Church Dogmatics that he had told me to read. “Karl Barth didn’t know whether he was a universalist or not,” Moltmann said.

And universalism was certainly in the foreground of the lecture that night, even if Moltmann’s position on the topic was only made explicit during the Q&A. He began by exploring the problems created by the traditional Calvinist doctrine of election (Introduction), followed by how Barth’s christocentric reformulation of election overcomes the damaging dualism of Double Predestination (points one and two).  But his most profound contribution was his “added chapter” to Barth’s doctrine of election, bringing it into conversation with liberation and political theologies (point three).

Since the Barth Conference I’ve had a chance to rewatch the lecture and put together some fairly detailed notes, which you can find here below the embedded video and audio (I may try to improve them later if I get a chance to listen again).  Verbatim quotes are denoted by quotation marks or blockquote indentation. Quotes are Moltmann except when stated otherwise. I’ll do a follow up post with some of his responses from the Q&A in the near future. Other lectures from the Barth Conference have been posted by Princeton Theological Seminary, and I’ve provided a listing with links here.

Video / Audio of Moltmann’s Lecture

MP3 Download

Detailed Notes from Moltmann’s Lecture


Barth, from preface in CD II/2:

I would have prefered to follow Calvin’s doctrine of predestination much more closely, instead of departing from it so radically. […] But I could not and cannot do so. As I let the Bible itself speak to me on these matters, as I meditated upon what I seemed to hear, I was driven irresistibly to reconstruction. And now I cannot help but be anxious to see whether I will be alone in this work, or whether there will be others who will find enlightenment in the basis and scope suggested.

Moltmann’s did his dissertation in 1950-52  on Calvinist predestination. Ever since he has been among those who greeted Barth’s christological renewal / reconstruction of predestination gratefully and with deep relief.

Main points to be covered in this lecture: 1) Section 32. Predestination or Election of grace, 2)  Section of 33. Double predestination in Jesus Christ? (emphasizing Barth’s reconstructions, drawing on Martin Luther and Paul Geirhart to reinforce Barthian election of grace), and 3) God’s electing and rejecting in the reign of Christ, to bring Barth’s theology into dialog with  political theology and theology of liberation.

Much damage has been done by Calvinist misunderstandings of predestination. “It represents the most holy God as worse than the devil…” (Wesley) Moltmann amplified it this way:

That the almighty God should from eternity choose one person and damn the other is a hellish message. What it evokes is not faith, but it is fatalism. This is a cruel and arbitrary God who plunges human beings into the torments of hell by making them ask “am I among the elect? Or am I not damned?”

Barth struggled through the Calvinist doctrine of decrees and reformulated it afresh.

The experience behind the doctrine of double predestination: That the message of the gospel awakens faith in one person, and unbelief in the other. The believer hears a call from God and is therefore chosen, justified, and sanctified; the unbeliever does not hear any call from God and is therefore not chosen, not justified, not sanctified. Unbelief comes from non-election. The circular argument of double predestination:  “The believer has been elected, and whoever has been elected believes. The person who is damned doesn’t believe and whoever doesn’t believe is damned.”

The consequences of double predestination: This dualism of belief and unbelief is rather harmless in our liberal and secular societies, and without consequences. Everyone can believe or not believe what he or she wants; we have freedom of religion. But in the Islamic interpretation of the terrorist organization ISIS in Iraq and Syria, this division of the world into believers and unbelievers has murderous consequences: Whoever does not believe must die. It is the invaluable merit of Karl Barth to have overcome this dualism of belief and unbelief in Christian theology. (And Islamic theologians can also overcome this dualism if they start with Allah the merciful instead of starting with identifying the true identity of a Muslim)

I. Predestination or God’s election of grace? CD II/2 Section 32

Barth’s doctrine of election (CD section 32): We have to look at God and God’s self-determination. Before God elects or condemns human beings, he elects himself. That is his election of grace. Before he says “You shall be my people” he says “I will be your God”

The doctrine of election is the sum of the Gospel because of all words that can be said or heard it is the best: that God elects man; that God is for man too the One who loves in freedom. It is grounded in the knowledge of Jesus Christ because He is both the electing God and elected man in One. It is part of the doctrine of God because originally God’s election of man is a predestination not merely of man but of Himself. Its function is to bear basic testimony to eternal, free and unchanging grace as the beginning of all the ways and works of God. (Barth, CD II/2, Section 32)

Moltmann: “Barth shifted from the explanation of why there are believers and unbelievers to the universal proclamation of the gospel. The unbelievers don’t need a theological explanation of why they are not believing or why they can’t believe, but the testimony of the gospel! We don’t condemn unbelievers. We pray for them, because God is the God of hope also for unbelievers. The gospel of Jesus Christ proclaims God’s election of grace. God turns toward human beings in Christ. That’s pure grace, merciful love, patient hope. It is the overflowing love which accords in God’s being. It is founded in God’s primal decision to live in community with another in fellowship with himself.”

God makes a self election in favor of this other. He determines for himself that overflowing, that movement. This election of grace is the gospel. It has its sole foundation on God’s freedom. It is not a reaction on God’s terms to human sin – in this sense Barth’s doctrine of election is supralapsarian. God’s election of grace is manifest only in Jesus Christ in accordance with the doctrine of the two natures. Jesus Christ is the electing God and the elected man in one.

This is Barth’s strict christocentrism at work: Everything which comes from God takes place in Jesus Christ.

God’s election of grace belongs to the doctrine of God, and only after that to human soteriology. God is not only the Almighty, he is first of all determinative of himself. Barth expresses this through the concept of God’s primal self-determination. God’s yes to the world is based on God’s self-affirmation. He desires this creation is truly as he will himself. He affirms human beings with the power of his self affirmation. This means that the function of the doctrine of predestination is nothing other than to be the fundamental testimony to free and enduring grace as the beginning of all God’s says and works. At this point God does not say anything about the end.

Two Problems raised in Barth’s doctrine of election:

  • Problem #1 – God’s freedom and God’s love

God is the one who loves in freedom. Isn’t that a matter of course? How should God love another way? No one can be compelled to love. God who loves in freedom is a tautology… but  aren’t freedom and love two sides of the same thing? Barth adheres to the concept of freedom of choice. Has God any choices where he himself is concerned? Insofar as God is not only loves but loves, in the act of love which determines his whole being, God elects. We know nothing about any such state in God before election in grace. Is freedom of choice clearly the sole and supreme concept of freedom? Freedom as an old European idea is not an attribute for a subject; it is a concept of relationship. “I would assign the freedom of choice to the relationship between subject and object, whereas the relation between subject and subject is dominated by another kind of freedom. I experience liberation when I am accepted, respected and loved. And I practice freedom when I for my part accept, respect and love. Friendship is a concrete term for freedom.”

  • Problem #2 – God’s will and God’s nature.

Is God’s will absolutely free in the election of grace? There are no external grounds that could set up limits to his freedom… but are there not internal ones? God does not choose out of everything possible in an arbitrary fashion. He chooses that which corresponds to his nature. He loves because he is love. He is faithful, he cannot deny himself. We must start with God’s essential nature if we want to know his will.

II. The election of Jesus Christ (Double Predestination in in Jesus Christ?). CD II/2 Section 33.

Double Predestination is traditionally used to mean not just the election of human beings but of their election and rejection both. For Barth, in Jesus Christ, God in his free grace determines himself for sinful man and sinful man in himself. He therefore takes on himself the rejection of man and elects man to participation in his own glory.  Jesus takes the death which all men must die. Our eternal judge makes himself the one condemned for us. God wills to lose in order that man may gain. “There is sure and certain salvation for man, and a sure and certain risk for God.” (Barth) God has ascribed to man election, salvation and life. To himself he has ascribed rejection, perdition and death. God chose his condemnation for our suffering. “He elects the cross of Golgotha as his kingly throne.” (Barth)

Man is not rejected. In God’s eternal purpose it is God himself who is rejected in his Son. The self-giving of God consists, the giving and sending of his Son is fulfilled, in the fact that he is rejected in order that we might not be rejected. Predestination means that from all eternity God has determined upon man’s acquittal at his own cost. (Barth)

Predestination in Jesus Christ is the rejection of one human being on behalf of all human beings. This is God’s overflowing love and glory. In the progressive logic of the negation of negation, this is the positive concept of election: God’s overflowing glory, in Barth’s concept of being.

Martin Luther sought for and found in a pastoral context what Barth sought in dogmatic terms. Talk of double predestination has always evoked more fear than assurance. Ever since the middle ages, two fears have made themselves feared 1) Am I sufficiently worthy that God should choose me? and 2) Many are called, but few are chosen why me? These questions drove young Martin Luther mad. Wise counsel to Luther:  If you wish to think about predestination, begin with the wounds of Christ. Then all your uncertainty about predestination will immediately vanish.

III. Adding a chapter to Barth’s Doctrine of Double Predestination: Electing and rejecting in the reign of Jesus Christ. Barth in conversation with political / liberation theology.

How are election and rejection working in the reign of the risen Christ? The prophetic traditions of the Bible don’t speak of God’s electing / rejecting in view of personal belief and unbelief but in view of human injustice and violence in God’s beloved world.

“Who does God elect? Jesus preached the gospel of the kingdom not to everybody in general but especially to the poor, the damned of this earth. Those who are excluded by a self-righteous society, and are humiliated by a violent class, has God elected to hear the message of the kingdom. The jobless and the homeless and the migrants receive the election of grace. The lost will be found, the last will be first, and hope is coming to the desperate.”

When Mary became pregnant she believed God had esteemed her low estate.

“In the injustice of this world God’s election of grace is obviously one-sided and partial. God has mercy with the miserable, and the miserable are the first to experience the overflowing glory of the Lord.” That no flesh should glory in his presence. This is a negative formulation of universal truth.

Before God all humans are equal and belong to the one human people. To reach this universal solidarity, God is electing the base things of the world, and the things which are despised, and is rejecting and confounding things which are mighty. In other words, God chooses the side of the poor not because of retaliation of the mighty but because of hope. God has chosen the poor in order also to redeem the rich. God has chosen the victims in order to also liberate the violent. But how are the rich redeemed and the violent liberated? By their turning around and reintegrating into the community they have left when they exalted themselves and begin to live on the costs of others.

Isaiah 40: Every valley exalted and every mountain / hill made low, and the glory of the lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together. This is the purpose: all flesh shall see it together. The poor are not at stake, nor the rich, nor the perpetrators. God is electing and rejecting in order to bring all humans into his beloved community. All flesh shall see the glory of the Lord together.

“Inequality in the human society is hindering God’s revelation. The beloved community hastens redemption. The true alternative to poverty is not prosperity. The true alternative to poverty and prosperity is community, togetherness.”  MLK’s dream of beloved community also used this this prophetic picture from Isa 40. This is our hope, the hope of universal solidarity of humankind.


God is faithful, resist! There is a certain temptation connected with predestination, and that is the fear that one’s faith and one’s fight for justice may prove to be too weak to withstand the persecutions and oppotions and seductions of his world. The assurance of election provides comfort and courage, by whom you were called. For his steadfast love endures forever…. He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion.

The spearhead of the doctrine of predestination is not an elite of believers and a mass of the damned of unbelievers, but the perseverance of the believers in persecution, expulsion, and martyrdom.  This is the true assurance of salvation: God has elected me, I can never be again lost to God. The faithfulness of God awakens the steadfastness of faith and the courage in the struggle for justice. Calvin has based faith on the community of Christ. Belief means faithfulness to Christ.

Never give up because of our own sins and disappointments. Resist!

6 thoughts on “Predestination: Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Election (Audio, Video & Notes from Moltmann’s #KBC2015 Lecture)”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *