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Election, Atonement and the Holy Spirit

​Grebe, Matthias. Election, Atonement and the Holy Spirit: Through and Beyond Barth’s Theological Interpretation of Scripture (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2014), xxii + 289 pp. $36.00 (paperback).

Reviewed by Adam J. Johnson (July 05, 2016)



Matthias Grebe, in Election, Atonement and the Holy Spirit, dives into the heart of Barth’s theology, confronting the simultaneity of God’s “Yes” and “No” across the doctrines of election and atonement. In charitable opposition to Barth, Grebe offers an account in which God only says “Yes” in Jesus, developing what he takes to be a more biblical, consistent and trinitarian account of these core doctrines.

Grebe interacts with the doctrine of election at two different levels: dogmatically, by exploring the doctrine of election, and exegetically, via a careful interaction with Barth’s exegesis of Lev. 14 and 16. This is precisely what we should look for in a good book on Barth—the kind of work that takes him seriously enough to disagree with him, and on the grounds that Barth himself establishes: biblical exegesis.

Grebe seeks to demonstrate that “Christ did not bear sins in the way the Azazel-goat did (by bearing them upon itself and thus taking divine punishment). Instead . . . Christ was a sin offering and did not, therefore, bear sin on the cross” (3). This is no trivial matter, for if in fact Christ did not bear the rejection of God in our place, then Barth’s formulation of double election (in which Jesus is both the object and subject of election, electing himself to bear our rejection, that we might be elect in him) suffers the loss of a considerable biblical support. To put Grebe’s argument as concisely as possible, if Jesus fulfills the role of both goats, in Yom Kippur, Barth’s doctrine of double election stands; if he takes upon himself the role of the sin-offering, but not the goat sent out into the wilderness, to Azazel, then Barth’s doctrine calls for significant reformulation. Grebe’s key question is thus: “how can Jesus simultaneously fulfill the role of both goats, that of the sin offering as well as the goat sent to Azazel, two animals that serve completely different functions and have different fates?” (65).

Those familiar with Barth’s doctrine of election will find Chapter 1 to be a clear and helpful reminder of Barth’s argument, with particular attention to CD II/2, pp. 354-66. Chapter 2 delves into exegetical matters, exploring the concept of Existenzstellvertretung (a vicarious offering of one’s life as an equivalent substitution for the forfeited life of another,” with particular emphasis on participation, and little or no reference to punishment or appeasement (cf. 68-9)), a linguistic analysis of kipper and the hattat (sin offering, or “purification offering,” as Grebe argues (72)), the role of blood, and Yom Kippur. In doing so, Grebe comes across a number of differences (and similarities) with Barth’s account (85-6). The net result is Grebe’s proposal that Jesus be seen as fulfilling the role of only one of the goats (the sin-offering goat), whereas the goat sent to Azazel remains unfulfilled by the death and resurrection of Christ. “This would result in the conclusion that Jesus Christ, with both his divine and his human nature, is only the elect of God”—a thesis with profound results for Barth’s theology (94).

Chapter 3 explores a variety of doctrines (covenant, anthropology, sin/nothingness) in preparation for the fourth and in many ways central chapter of the book, which considers Barth’s account of Jesus, the Judge Judged in our place. Grebe argues that Barth should have developed the argument of CD IV/1 from a cultic rather than forensic basis, and that the result would have been a more consistent and biblical doctrine, unperturbed by the artificial and ultimately detrimental incorporation of God’s “No” into Jesus’ death on the cross. “We have to disagree with Barth’s . . . point where he talks about God’s No, Jesus standing under the wrath and destruction of God . . . In fact, Jesus was rejected by others and ‘precisely herein he was not rejected by his Father’ (citing Pannenberg, ST 3:452)” (165). The reasons for this rejection of “God’s ‘No’” are manifold, including problems with Barth’s doctrine of election (already mentioned), trinitarian problems (172, 182, 194-5, 197), and problems with the view of sin implied (as though it were a transferable substance) (182ff., 195-6). The upshot is a critique of Barth thoroughly indebted to Existenzstellvertretung, which is then played out across a series of doctrines in the fifth chapter, particularly Pneumatology and the question of universalism in Barth.

In response to Grebe’s argument, I have three comments. First, while his engagement with Barth’s exegesis of Lev. 14 and 16 was very thorough and interesting, those passages form one part of a larger exegetical argument which depends greatly on Barth’s exegesis of David and Saul, and ultimately on such New Testament passages as Ephesians 1:4 (247). While Grebe’s work moves in good directions, and certainly challenges some of Barth’s main doctrines, the argument as a whole calls for further consideration along the lines begun here in chapter 2. In other words, I found Grebe’s work provocative, but inconclusive, calling for further development along precisely those exegetical lines which Grebe himself lays out.

Second, I found myself having to work hard to read Grebe charitably at certain points, when it seemed that he was making overly hasty criticisms of Barth, particularly when Barth offers rejoinders to those criticisms elsewhere in the Church Dogmatics. Grebe’s argument that Barth’s view essentially posits a rupture within the Trinity, a fact he says Barth failed to consider (182), would be a prime example. I found myself wishing that Grebe would have engaged Barth’s account of the Trinity in such passages as CD IV/1, 253 and CD IV/2, 343, and his distinction between Gottesferne and Trennung (which to my mind clearly distances him from a Moltmann-esque account of the rupture within the Trinity). Grebe’s treatment of the Son of Man and Son of God distinction struck me the same way (94-5). Grebe’s thesis cuts so directly to the core of Barth’s thought, that perhaps this is unavoidable—a book of this scope simply cannot develop the implications of Grebe’s critique in a way that will satisfy those more eager to defend Barth.

Third, my biggest challenge was to understand Grebe when it came to his own account of Jesus’ death for us, for it seemed to fall prey to some of the same criticisms Grebe leveled against Barth. For instance, Grebe argues against a traditional view in which sin is “viewed as a defilement, something that must be removed. It is also seen as a barrier preventing fellowship with God” (182). Rather, sin “is something that resides within the person; so it is not simply an object that can be dealt with. Rather, the sinful nature is intimately bound up with the entire person and it is therefore the person, as opposed to simply the sin, that is sinful and constitutes the problem” (183). Grebe takes Barth to understand sin in the former, traditional sense, allowing for a transfer of sin from ourselves to Jesus, that he might be rejected in our place. Against such a view, “it is not that something needs to be taken away, but that the whole person needs to die, because sin resides within that person, to be resurrected again in order to be with God” (185; cf. 190).

Setting aside whether Barth has such a view of sin (and I am not sure he does), we will focus on Grebe’s constructive work, where he claims: “the whole Christ-event should not be seen as an act that was both negative and positive but rather was a wholly positive act by Jesus that brought humanity into fellowship with God” (p. 193). How one can set aside the negative aspect of Christ’s work while affirming that “the whole person needs to die” is not immediately evident. Grebe affirms that “we do not abrogate the negative aspect of the cross . . . But the No of the Father is not spoken against the Son—instead it is spoken through the Son against Sin” (195; cf. 196). But this seems to be precisely what Grebe was arguing against—an account that treats sin almost as a substance, an entity, which can be addressed apart from or independently of the sinner.

If in fact sin is bound up with the being of the sinner (183), then saying “No” to sin simply is saying “No” to the sinner (cf. 249-50). The question then is whether 1) the “No” is said to the sinner inasmuch as she is in Christ, which is then taken up within the larger “Yes” toward which the passion of Christ is ordered in the resurrection, or 2) put alongside the “Yes” in Christ, in the form of a double-predestination (which Grebe obviously rejects). Reading chapter 4 carefully, I found myself unable to hold together Grebe’s account of sin with his account of Christ’s work in a way which either set Grebe’s view apart from an older Calvinism (which he rejects), or distinguished Grebe’s view from Barth’s own in a way that avoided the simultaneity of the “Yes” and “No” which is so central to Barth’s argument (with the latter always ordered toward and taken up within the former). One of Grebe’s concluding statements would seem to support precisely such a “No” of death, taken up within the “Yes” of the resurrection, both of which happen in Christ, the one rejected for us that we might be reconciled to God in him: “Christ takes humanity’s sinful existence with him into his extraordinary death and in this way makes an end to sinful humanity. However, because humanity is united with him in death, she is also united with him in his resurrection and thus… the person ‘in Christ’ will be given a new resurrection body and be brought into contact with God” (p. 254).

The future of Barth studies lies in moving beyond him, by doing the kind of exegetically informed dogmatics he himself practiced. We find an excellent example of this in Grebe’s interaction with Barth’s exegesis of Lev. 14 and 16. Ultimately, however, I found more resources within Grebe for a Barthian reconstrual of Existenzstellvertretung such as to include a negative component therein, rather than an Existenzstellvertretung correction of Barth such as Grebe wants to provide. This, however, is neither here nor there in the long run, so long as systematic theologians are doing the kind of exegetical and linguistic work Grebe is doing here—for this is precisely the kind of engagement with Barth which will ultimately further the discipline.

The views expressed here are strictly those of the author; they do not necessarily represent the views of the Center for Barth Studies or Princeton Theological Seminary.