A good deal of Barth’s (in)famous thought on election can be seen as an answer to a question that presented itself to both Augustine and Athansius – the question of just how God can promise eternal life from before time eternal. This question is, interestingly enough, not asked in Scripture but simply given as a reality in Scripture in Titus 1:2 – ‘the hope of eternal life, which God, that cannot lie, promised before time eternal.’ The question, then, as it presented itself to Athanasius, Augustine, and Barth, is how can God make a promise to men who did not exist before time eternal?
Barth begins to answer this question by an exegesis of the opening of the book of John. This puzzled me for a while, because Barth moves from fairly standard thinking on John 1:1-2 – affirming that the Word is Jesus, was with God, etc etc – to arguing that if Jesus is the Word, then He is election, the decree of God and the beginning of God’s movement towards man. This is quite a leap, and Barth fleshes it out by moving from John to Colossians, where he notes that the Godhead was pleased to dwell in Jesus, and is the firstborn of all creation:
‘Thus in Col. 1:17 we read that the Son of God – the Son in concreto and not in abstracto, Jesus Christ, who is the head of His body, the Church – this Son is “before all things” and “in Him all things consist”. It was, in fact, “the good pleasure of the fullness of the Godhead” (and here the concept of election is quite clear), to take form, or to take up residence in him…It is, then, only by way of explanation of His being as the God who is conceived of in this primal, original and basic movement towards man that Heb. 1:2 (like Jn. 1:3, 10) says concerning Him that He whom God “appointed heir of all things” is the one “by whom also he made the worlds” and Heb. 1:3 that he upholds all things by the word of his power” and Col. 1:16 that “by him were all things created, that are in heaven, that are in earth, visible and invisible…’ (Karl Barth, ‘Church Dogmatics’, II.2 p. 98-99, emphasis mine)
So Barth here identifies the ‘good pleasure’ as God’s election and movement towards man – but later on he goes further and identifies as not just the object of the ‘good pleasure’ but as the ‘good pleasure’ itself – the very will of God in action is identified with Jesus.
‘If that is true, then in the name and person of Jesus Christ we are called upon to recognise the Word of God, the decree of God and the election of God at the beginning of all things, at the beginning of our own being and thinking, at the basis of our faith in the ways and works of God.’ (p. 99)
Barth has, then, by way of John through Colossians and Hebrews, identified Jesus as the Word of God and the ‘good pleasure’ of God in taking up his residence in him, and thus as the election of God. Thus, Jesus = Word = election, all of which cashes out to God’s original movement towards man. How, though, does this answer the original question posed? The question we can reiterate in Athansius’ words:
‘…how could He have predestined us to sonship before man was created, unless the Son had been laid as a foundation before time was, and had undertaken to provide a way of salvation for us…and how could we receive anything before times eternal, we, creatures of time, who did not then exist, unless the grace appointed for us had already been deposited in Christ.’ (p. 109)
Augustine’s answer, according to Barth:
‘But Augustine – and in this we must at once follow him – also looked upward to the place where the incarnation, the reality of the divine-human person of Jesus Christ before the foundation of the world and all other reality, is identical to with the eternal purpose of the good-pleasure of God, and where the eternal purpose of the eternal good-pleasure of God which precedes all created reality is identical with the reality of the divine-human person of Jesus Christ. He looked upwards to the place where the eternal God not only foresees and foreordains this person, but where He Himself, as the presupposition of its revelation in time, is actually this person…it is in this Word that before times eternal life could be and actually was promised to man, even before man himself existed at all.’ (p. 108)
‘He (Athanasius) saw that the election of the man Jesus and our election, with all the grace and gifts of grace which this includes, have their “foundation” as he himself says, in the eternity of the Word or Son, an eternity which differs not at all from that of the Father…with Athanasius the decree, or predestination, or election, was, in fact, the decision reached at the beginning of all things, at the beginning of the relationship between God and the reality which is distinct from Him. The Subject of this decision is the triune God – the Son of God no less than the Father and the Holy Spirit, And the specific object of it is the Son of God in His determination as the Son of Man, the God-Man, Jesus Christ, who is as such the eternal basis of the whole divine election.’ (p. 110)
The question is then answered by identifying Jesus as the Word, and the Word as God’s movement towards man and God’s ‘good-pleasure’ in dwelling fully in Jesus. If Jesus is truly the eternal Word of God, then the promise from time eternal is grounded in this reality of the eternal Word in His determination as the Son of Man.