An Evangelical and a Universalist Walk into a Bar

How you respond to the title of this post says a lot about what kind of evangelical you are. Setting aside for a moment what you think about an evangelical walking into a bar with anyone, there’s the question of whether you think that evangelicals and universalists should really be hanging out together like this.

environmentalism, universalism, universal salvation, globe, earth

Traditionally, evangelicals have not responded positively to universalism in any of its various forms. At the very least, evangelicals tend to see universalism as undermining such central evangelical convictions as the radical sinfulness of the human person and the doctrine of justification by faith alone; the importance of personal conversion expressed through ongoing discipleship and holiness; and the vital necessity of evangelism, missions, and social action. And, of course, the primary evangelical concern about universalism is the Bible itself. As Daniel Strange declares,

any serious evangelical theologian whose ultimate authority is Scripture, cannot ignore the clear passages which refer to the reality of judgement and hell and the prophetic element which declares that some will never come to repentance.”

So, if you allow universalism, pretty soon you’ll have complacent Christianity, rampant relativism, antinomian anarchy, cats and dogs living together, mass hysteria.

With such significant concerns, it seems hard to believe that evangelicals could have any meaningful engagement with universalists, let alone hang out with one in public. Indeed, given the vociferous response of many evangelicals to Rob Bell’s Love Wins, one wonders if evangelicals and universalists should even be allowed on the same internet. Even as some evangelicals have come to embrace the possibility of annhiliationism (e.g. John Stott) or a second chance for salvation after death (e.g. Donald Bloesch), we have generally rejected universalism itself as a viable option for evangelical theology.

Now all of this creates a bit of a problem when evangelicals turn to Karl Barth. Ask a roomful of educated evangelicals what they think about Barth, and within the first few minutes, you’re likely to hear that he was some kind of universalist, shortly after they complain about his doctrine of revelation, and maybe speculate on the possibility that he had an affair with his secretary. If Barth was a universalist, and if universalism is as problematic as evangelicalism has traditionally believed, then there’s a real question about whether evangelicals should have anything to do with Karl Barth.

So, if we’re going to have any chance of introducing Barth to an evangelical audience, we will need to make some progress here, which is what I hope to do in this series. First, we’ll survey Barth’s understanding of salvation as it relates to the possibility of universalism. And we’ll see that pinning Barth down on the question of universalism is not as easy as it might first seem. Then we’ll look at how we as evangelicals might respond to this aspect of Barth’s theology. Along the way, I hope to demonstrate a way of helping evangelicals appreciate the strengths of Barth’s approach to salvation while still recognizing some important weaknesses.

So stay tuned for follow-up posts on:

(I recently presented a conference paper dealing with the question of how to introduce Karl Barth to evangelicals despite the apparently universalistic implications of his theology. This blog series is a lightly revised version of that paper. So, if you’re interested in Karl Barth, universalism, and/or evangelicalism in general, stick around. It should be fun.)

Comments

comments

19 Responses to “An Evangelical and a Universalist Walk into a Bar”

  1. Michael November 20, 2012 at 9:03 am #

    Marc,

    One problem with Evangelical assessments of Barth’s doctrine of Revelation is that they often ignore his Dogmatics and focus on his earlier work, particularly his Romans commentary. Barth acknowledged making changes, important ones in his understanding of revelation though. And his Church Dogmatics reflects his more mature understanding. However, even in very recent theological works such as Horton’s theology, Barth is continually faulted for his earlier views. This is very disappointing.

    Further, Barth often reads like a church father and like one who knows God and loves him. However, several evangelical systematics have been written that seem overly cerebral.

    Its not likely that Barth will enjoy much more charity in evangelical circles, at least not presently. Certainly not until he is more fairly presented.

    Michael Metts

  2. Michael November 20, 2012 at 9:07 am #

    Further, the point of universalism misses the crucial and doxological emphasis of Barth on God’s grace. It is God’s divine yes, in response to the divine no. Barth everywhere emphasizes this Reformed/Lutheran understanding of grace. However, he is quite capable of speaking strongly of those who reject it and the certain wrath they will suffer, even in the same context.

    Charges of universalism will also likely continue since Barth never wrote an eschatology, and since he, again, is unfairly presented.

    Evangelicals don’t like Barth because he believed the Bible had errors, plain and simple. So, we write off ten-thousand pages of the most blessed theology since Augustine as a result (recalling a recent pope’s compliments of Barth).

    • Marc Cortez November 25, 2012 at 4:24 pm #

      Hey Michael, I completely agree that evangelicals often present Barth unfairly. I hope not to repeat that mistake here. But I thinks it’s also fair to say that even though I think there are good reasons to listen to Barth on this point, there are also some legitimate questions about how he presents his understanding of salvation. But we’ll have to let the series unfold a bit to see what I mean.

      Thanks from some great comments!

      • Michael November 26, 2012 at 3:56 pm #

        He can certainly be faulted, yes. And his equivocal nature makes him hard to pigeonhole.

  3. Carolyn Culbertson November 20, 2012 at 10:20 am #

    Looking forward to this!

  4. jim November 20, 2012 at 12:07 pm #

    i like that michael kid. he seems on the ball. looking forward to your series, even though, as with all things emergent, it commences in a bar.

  5. James F. McGrath November 20, 2012 at 1:17 pm #

    I expected the punchline to be that the bartender asks, “What’ll you have, Robin?” :-)

  6. Mark Stevens November 20, 2012 at 3:22 pm #

    At the risk of having a Torrance show up…

    In the circle I move in Barth is loved an excepted by Evangelicals. Are you referring to to Reformed Evangelicals perhaps?
    I read Barth and am acutely aware of the charge that he was a universalist but it has always been my understanding that Barth made provision for a NO to God’s Yes. Is this correct?

    • Marc Cortez November 25, 2012 at 4:26 pm #

      I can’t speak for other contexts, but although Barth gets a much more friendly reception in American evangelical circles than he used to, there’s still a fair amount of skepticism (and apathy!) out there, and not just in Reformed circles.

      And yes, I’ll explain later in the series how Barth makes room for the divine NO, but it’s not without problems.

  7. Michael November 23, 2012 at 11:33 am #

    Looking forward to the future post on the subject…and totally looking forward to the class you are teaching on Barth next Summer at Western Seminary!

  8. Marc Cortez November 25, 2012 at 4:27 pm #

    Hey everyone, sorry to be a little slow on the comments. A little family emergency cropped up over Thanksgiving, and that needed some extra attention. Thanks for your patience.

  9. Marc Cortez January 16, 2013 at 8:59 pm #

    Tribulus, just so you know, I chose to remove your comment because you did not interact with the substance of this post in any way. I have no problems with comments that are critical of Barth (or me, for that matter), but they do need to be on topic.

  10. carol March 21, 2013 at 2:24 pm #

    Hey there! I understand this is kind of off-topic but I had to ask.
    Does running a well-established blog such as yours take a massive amount work?
    I’m completely new to blogging however I do write in my diary every day. I’d like to start a blog so I can share my personal experience and thoughts online.
    Please let me know if you have any recommendations or tips for brand new aspiring bloggers.
    Appreciate it!

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