Divine sovereignty and election are the manner in which God reveals his humility in contrast to, and as a solution to, human pride, according to Karl Barth. He offers an illustration in his exegesis of 1 Samuel 8-31 (found in the Church Dogmatics, IV/1, pp. 437-445). The people went to Samuel and demanded a king. But “from 1 Sam. 8 we see clearly that the existence and function of a human king in Israel are alien and indeed contrary to the original conception of the covenant … The Judges of an earlier period, of whom Samuel was the last, were called to their work directly by God and as the need arose” (p. 438). Given that kings are contrary to the covenant (a claim which Barth defends quite extensively), it is surprising that God agrees to their demand. “Indeed Yahweh Himself undertakes the election and appointment of a king for Israel, and Samuel, for his part, can only be the instrument of this election and appointment which obviously contradict everything that has gone before and the Law which Israel has followed” (p. 439). The text makes clear that God is not changing his mind about the covenant (Barth cites 1 Sam. 15:29f), rather,
According to 1 Sam. 8:18 even God’s connivance and condescension to the people in this matter are simply an act of judgment: “And ye shall cry out in that day because of your king which ye have chosen you; and the Lord will not hear you in that day.” God gave them up (Rom. 1:24, 26, 28) to their own hearts’ desire, to their perverted judgment. He punished their sin by their sin, simply letting it take its course. But that is not good at all, and it is not the decisive point. The grace of God is not extinguished or withdrawn in this His apparent concession. He knows very well what He is will and doing when He accedes to the perverted judgment of Israel its place and possibility. Even in accepting Israel’s plan He can master it. (p. 439)
Even in the midst of his condescension (and we might add humiliation) in the face of the request, God continues with his plan.
[T]he kingship was to express the monarchy and the sole lordship of the grace of God. This was the purpose of the divine concession to Israel’s sinful and perverted demand. It is a concession in which Yahweh not only maintains His control but exercises it in a new way. He does not give up His will and plan. He carries it through in the face of and in opposition to Israel’s sin.
Of course Saul didn’t carry out his side of the deal and (as Barth goes on to explain in no small detail). Rather than serve the people, he began to make demands of the people so that the people began to serve the institution. Saul even sought to usurp the prophetic role. This ultimately leads to Saul’s downfall and death (in stark contrast to Aaron, who did as the people told him and led them into apostasy, but never usurped the role of Moses). Although we have the interlude of David, the second king who was also elected by God and anointed by Samuel, Saul, not David, was the precursor of things to come. The monarchy turned out to be a disaster for Israel.
What is the meaning of this turn of events? “Again, it was the sin of Israel not to be satisfied with the old form. This is the shadow which lies from the very first on the new form of the covenant, the Israelitish monarchy. It did not need to be darkness. It could mean even higher and deeper grace, like the covenant, which, although it had become something stern and hard because of the sin of the first man, had not been destroyed, but had become all the higher and deeper grace in antithesis to the sin of man” (p. 442). In the end the people were required to serve the king (and institution) rather than the institution serving the people.
The king (and lurking in the shadows of Barth’s critique of “the Israelitish monarchy” is his critique of the papacy, which he clearly sees as a parallel rejection of God’s covenantal structure for the church) would demand difficult and burdensome things of the people. The king would even, on many occasions, lead the people in the direction of great evil. But this did not mean that the people of Israel should cease being Israelites and go out and form a new nation that followed the covenant. Because God’s grace could be expressed in “the higher and deeper grace” of God’s humble activity “in antithesis to the sin of man” in spite of the burden and corruption of the institution, those still committed to the covenant could gladly remain faithful to the covenant, in spite of the false and unnecessary institutional burden being placed on them.
Furthermore, Barth’s recommendation is not that Protestants cease being Protestants and just return to the Roman Catholic Church. What’s done is done and there is always the mystery of God’s higher and deeper grace in our current fractured state. But he is making the point that even when we are part of an institution (whether monarchy or papacy or other institutional church, such as the German Reformed Church that served the purposes of the Third Reich during Barth’s lifetime) that is corrupt, God remains working actively in antithesis to human sin, but in a condescending and hidden manner. Our primary job as people is first to be faithful. Our faithfulness may happen to fix the system, but it usually does not. But it is not our job to fix the system, our job is to remain faithful to the covenant in the situation in which we find ourselves.
It is striking that Barth never left the German church. (Yes, he was in northern Switzerland, but the body he was a part of was part of the German church and not an independent Swiss Reformed body.) It is also striking that while he never condemned Bonhoeffer for his act of treason against Hitler that ultimately led to Bonhoeffer’s death, neither did Barth praise it as the normative model of faithfulness. He certainly never called Bonhoeffer a martyr, for he died, not because he was a Christian, but because he was a traitor to the Reich. In the end, while Bonhoeffer’s action has remained a shining example of Christian resistance, it had little effect on the church beyond his example. Barth’s path was different. He remained in the German church. Since he was in Switzerland, he “fought” with the Allies against the Nazis as a city guard in Basel, and he wrote theology. His body of writings, over the next generation, was key to transforming the German church as it confessed its complicity with the Nazis and moved forward into a new era of self-understanding.
I have a number of friends and colleagues who have remained in the Presbyterian Church (USA) in spite of its many problems and its ongoing decent into heresy. Although I never thought of it in the context of Barth’s exegesis of 1 Sam. 8-31, I find my attitude toward them as well as toward those who left the denomination (including me, I should note) in much the same way Barth seemed to react to Bonhoeffer. I neither praise nor condemn, I simply assume that they continue to be faithful to God’s covenant in the path that they have taken. Similarly, I am appalled by the racism enacted in Christian bodies such as the Southern Baptist Convention and the Presbyterian Church in America, as they turn a blind eye to the rising violence against people of color and too often censure those who do speak out. (This is the reason I waited until today, the ML King holiday here int he States, to post this essay.) But as with my colleagues in the mainline churches, so with my acquaintances in these Evangelical bodies: I have no reason to think they are not being faithful to God’s covenant in spite of the abysmal levels those denominations have sunk. The utter mess and confusion of human perversion makes the correct path forward difficult to see. In the midst of the confusion and perversion, what I am absolutely convinced of is “the higher and deeper grace” of God in Christ in the midst of the modern world.