Matthias Gockel, Barth and Schleiermacher on the Doctrine of Election: A Systematic-Theological Comparison (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), viii + 229. $99.00 / £51.00

Reviewed by Matthew J. Aragon Bruce (August 25, 2010)

Karl Barth’s critical stance towards Friedrich Schleiermacher is no secret. The relationship that Barth established with his esteemed predecessor has resulted in numerous books, articles, and debates. More often than not, the story of modern theology is told such that one must choose between these two giants as the only options for protagonist and antagonist (depending on who tells the story of course!). Despite recent attempts to transcend the impasse, the default approach to a book such as this one still seems to be: Why would anyone read Schleiermacher to understand Barth (or vice versa)? Matthais Gockel, Wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter at the Friedrich-Schiller-Universität Jena, has shown us the benefit of questioning such common ‘wisdom.’ With this book, a revision of his 2002 doctoral dissertation at Princeton Seminary, Gockel adds to the building consensus that the theologies of Schleiermacher and Barth are far from irreconcilable and in fact demonstrate a significant degree of concurrence, a fact that much previous scholarship failed to recognize.The bulk of the book takes the form of a survey, comparison, and assessment of the doctrine of election as developed by the two theologians. It is divided, unsurprisingly, into two chief sections: the first on Schleiermacher (chapters 1-2), and the second on Barth (3-5). Gockel’s claim is not that Barth’s doctrine owes genetic dependence to that of Schleiermacher; rather, he contends that Barth’s doctrine developed in large part independently of Schleiermacher’s Glaubenslehre. It is thus all the more surprising that there are undeniable similarities between Barth and Schleiermacher’s doctrines of election. The task Gockel has set for himself– and which he succeeds in remarkably – is to give an account of the development of the doctrines of election in both Barth and Schleiermacher; to assess the significance and consequences of the surprising commonalities; and yet also to make clear the divergences – the chief difference being Barth’s radical christological re-tooling of the doctrine in the Church Dogmatics.

In chapter 1, Gockel gives an account of Schleiermacher’s earlier doctrine contained in his 1819 essay on election (Ueber die Lehre von der Erwählung). Schleiermacher wrote this essay as he prepared to write the first edition (1820/21) of the Glaubenslehre and he described it himself as “a kind of precursor to my Dogmatics.” Gockel’s exposition demonstrates that the doctrine of election is a primary component of Schleiermacher’s dogmatics. This is due to the fact that the so-called father of modern theology self-consciously rooted his dogmatics in the Reformed tradition. Schleiermacher’s doctrine lies squarely within the Augustinian-Calvinistic tradition, albeit with some critical revisions. The primary goal of Schleiermacher’s essay is to demonstrate the advantages of the Augustinian-Calvinistic position over and against the “more noble Pelagianism” expounded by some of his contemporary Lutheran colleagues. Schleiermacher backs off from the more “severe” forms of the Reformed outlook (e.g. the Canons of the Synod of Dort) and defends the position of the Calvin and Luther over some of the later developments of the Orthodox and especially the Rationalist theologians. His chief target throughout is the conception of faith as, in part, a human work independent of God. Schleiermacher roundly rejects any such Pelagian sentiments and argues that such emphases would seem “to render Christ’s work superfluous, since it assumes that human beings by themselves are capable of the good… such an assumption should not be acceptable for theologians of the Lutheran tradition: ‘One can hardly quote here, if one does not want to repeat everything Luther has written’” (19). Schleiermacher’s most original contribution to the doctrine of election, which is his major revision to the Augustinian-Calvinistic position, is the notion of a single decree. Contrary to both Luther and Calvin and the scholastic orthodoxies which follow in their wake, Schleiermacher contends that, “election and reprobation are the contrasting and yet united aspects of the single divine decree, based on the divine will that creates and orders everything, by which humankind shall be regenerated and transformed into the spiritual body of Christ” (33).

Chapter 2 addresses Schleiermacher’s mature doctrine contained in the Glaubenslehre. The chief revision to his earlier essay is that the doctrine is more consistently developed in line with the concept of a single decree. Schleiermacher places the doctrine within ecclesiology and re-focuses the doctrine of election on the “larger context of the relevance of divine election for the generation of the Christian Church in light of Christ’s appearance in history” (102). In his mature work, Schleiermacher rejects any notion of the inequality between believers and non-believers based on particular relations between God and individual human beings. He does so in order to emphasize the unity of God’s will and its identity with the redemptive work of the Mediator. The idea that humanity consists of two groups – elect and reprobate – is ruled out for, according to Schleiermacher, this would signify a duality in the divine will. In this light, Gockel concludes that for Schleiermacher, “unbelievers and believers alike are the object of divine predestination to salvation in Jesus Christ. God sees all human beings, not only believers, in Christ” (102).

Gockel takes up Barth’s doctrine in the Römerbrief in chapter 3. Barth, like Schleiermacher, is solidly within the Augustinian-Calvinist train of thought; he affirms the Reformation notion of justification by grace through faith and a corresponding doctrine of election in which God determines which individuals will or will not come to faith in Christ. Barth radicalizes the Reformation understanding, however. God’s election of human beings for salvation is characterized as his opposition to the human predicament of sin and death. His work against these forces culminates in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. But Barth understands the resurrection not simply as a victory over sin and death, but as God’s judgment – the divine No! against this state of affairs. Barth’s aim is to make it all the more clear that redemption from sin and death is a possibility only for God: human beings lack the ability to procure salvation for themselves. This move leads Barth in the direction of Schleiermacher, for whom the judgment of God against sin and death also extends to the entire human race and not simply to those individuals who are elected to have faith. Barth conceives of faith not as one historical event among others, not as a sequence of cause and effect, but as a supratemporal event the sole origin of which is God (108-9). The driving issue here for Barth, against the tradition, is that if God’s freedom is to be protected, predestination cannot be considered as the result of a change of cause and effect extending back into the pre-temporal abyss where God decided once and for all who will believe. Rather, and again like Schleiermacher, there is a single divine decree, “‘one divine doing’ that constitutes the true unity of all human beings.” Election and reprobation are, quoting Barth, “unintuitably one and the same in God” (118). Predestination then concerns the continuing encounter between God and human beings in history, it is not a one-off event of protological determination, but rather God’s free interaction with the creatures he created to redeem. The doctrine of election is primarily not about the salvation of individuals but about the God who elects to redeem human beings.

In chapter 4, Gockel outlines the continuation of Barth’s development in the Göttingen Dogmatics. Three notions from the Römerbrief are expanded: First, Barth rejects the notion of a pre-temporal divine decree concerning individual persons and instead argues for the historicity of faith and unbelief. Second, God is the actor in the event of faith, i.e. he is the origin of the individual’s faith. Human beings are incapable of initiating faith. Third, reprobation and election are teleologically related such that the former leads to the latter with no change in direction. Each of these aspects addresses problems that Barth sees in the tradition. In the first case, Barth argues that God always remains free toward every human being at all times. In other words, God is not bound by a protological decree; rather, his “decision to elect or reprobate is always made anew…The idea of divine predestination, as a fundamental description of God’s acting upon human beings, is an expression of God’s lasting freedom to say either Yes or No to a human being” (146). The second aspect notes that election is the result of an address by God to a human being. Election is utterly dependent upon God’s agency: human beings can contribute nothing. Again, the primary focus is on the electing God and not the elected or reprobate person. This third aspect is the most marked change from the Römerbrief. Barth’s contention is that “the purpose of the divine act of predestination is always election, not the reprobating” (149). Reprobation is only the shadow side of election and never occurs for its own sake. It is never God’s final word. Reprobation only ever serves God’s self-revelation to human beings: “God’s word ‘does not say No but Yes, even if this Yes always again breaks through out of a No’” (150).

Up to this point, Gockel argues that Barth’s development consists of a “Schleiermacherian reconstruction” of election. This reconstruction is made possible mainly through the adoption of a similar understanding of a single decree. Although there are differences (e.g., the Creator-creature relationship), Barth’s doctrine is surprisingly close to Schleiermacher’s on each of the three aspects outlined above. Above all, both theologians stress the unity of God’s decree and that the subject matter of the doctrine is primarily the electing God rather than predestined or reprobated human beings.

Chapter 5 will be the most familiar to most readers, and for this very reason controversial. Here Gockel traverses the well-trod soil of Barth’s revision of election in CD II/2. Gockel takes a firm stand in the current debates, siding with and developing Bruce McCormack’s reading of Barth’s doctrine of election. What is beneficial and new to some readers is the first section of this chapter in which Gockel discusses Barth’s work just prior to writing CD II/2, e.g. the lectures in Hungary which became Gottes Gnadenwahl, Barth’s Gifford Lectures, and a significant treatment of Barth’s relationship with Pierre Maury and the latter’s pioneering work in Election et foi. The remainder of the chapter is a detailed exposition of CD II/2 followed by some critical analysis. Gockel’s chief criticism concerns Barth’s approach to universal salvation. Gockel challenges Barth’s reluctance to fully endorse universalism and claims that Schleiermacher is more consistent than Barth in this regard (cf. chapter 2).

Gockel models the type of careful, close reading and analysis that the theological work of Schleiermacher and Barth merit and require. He succumbs to neither “Neo-Orthodox” nor “Liberal” stereotypes, but rather gives a fresh and detailed reading of both Barth and Schleiermacher. His approach is deeply contextual, giving attention to historical and intellectual details. Schleiermacher is read as a reformed dogmatician (as he understood himself), rather than the philosophical theologian to which he is often reduced in Anglophone scholarship. And Barth is rightly recognized as a modern theologian who must be read and understood in light of the intellectual developments of 19th century if we are to understand him correctly.

In terms of contemporary English-language Barth Studies, Gockel provides a robust and convincing argument that Barth’s mature doctrine of election concerns a primal decision about the identity of God’s being and that of humanity. This decision consists of God’s self-determination to relate to humanity in a covenant of grace through the person of Jesus Christ and the determination of human beings to be in covenant with God as the people of God. If those interpreters of Barth who disagree with Gockel and McCormack concerning how to interpret Barth’s language of God’s self-determination hope to convince us that such an interpretation is unfaithful to Barth, they will need to provide an alternative interpretative framework, hitherto unfurnished, with which to read Barth which engages in the same careful, detailed, and contextual interpretation as that which Gockel has provided with this book. Gockel is simply too persuasive to ignore and Barth studies will suffer if work of this quality is discounted.

Matthias Gockel has provided his readers with a highly learned and accurate exposition of the doctrines of election developed by the two giants of modern Protestant theology. Moreover, he has done far more than this. He has shown to be true what von Balthasar told us more than fifty years ago, a lesson that far too many Barth scholars have unfortunately forgotten (or perhaps have chosen to neglect):

“Barth cannot be understood unless we see how his point of departure was determined by Schleiermacher, who gave him during the years of his theological formation the conceptual tools for his own thought. But even more than that, Schleiermacher gave Barth a powerful intuition into the unity, grandeur and totality of theology as a scientific discipline.” (Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Theology of Karl Barth, trans. Edward T. Oakes; Ignatius Press, 1992, p. 199).

In other words, if one is to understand Barth correctly, then one must travel the road to, through, and only then from Schleiermacher. Gockel has admirably lead us along this path, narrating the turns and dead ends and finally directing us forward in ways faithful to, albeit critically reparative of, both Barth and Schleiermacher. Gockel’s book will hopefully lead contemporary theologians to see that it is high time the so-called impasse between Barth and Schleiermacher be set aside so that protestant theologians can get on with the task of serving the Church in its proclamation of the Good News of Jesus Christ. One can only hope (and pray!) that future Barth scholars will follow Gockel and, in so doing, hasten the death of the unreflective Barthian scholasticism and historically ignorant Neo-Orthodox readings that continue to plague English-language Barth studies.

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.