You find all kinds of interesting things when you read the doctrinal statements that beginning theology students write. Just the other day, I saw one that appealed to Ephesians 7:12 in support of their position. They must have a Director’s Cut edition of the Bible. And I often get to to point out that the way a student worded a particular statement means that they’re affirming something that was actually condemned as heresy at one of the ecumenical councils. That’s always fun.
My favorite, though, is when a student makes a claim that seems to contradict something they affirmed elsewhere in the statement. That’s when I get to draw a big arrow from X to Y asking them to clarify how both of those statements can be true. Oh the joys of grading.
When I’m reading Karl Barth’s theology, I often want to draw some arrows.
As we saw in the previous post, Barth’s theology clearly presses in the direction of universalism. Everyone is included in election and Christ’s atoning sacrifice covers the sins of everyone. So it would seem pretty obvious that Barth believes everyone will ultimately be saved, including you, your neighbor, your boss, and the obnoxious guy who always talks too loudly on his cell phone next to you at the coffee shop. You even begin to wonder if Barth would have held out for the salvation of such heinous beings as Satan, the demons, and my wife’s cat.
Yet Barth clearly rejected universalism. And that’s when my hand starts to twitch, wanting to draw an arrow from X (universal election and the atonement) to Y (rejection of universalism) and ask Barth to explain how both of those can be true.
Fortunately, Barth tried to do just that.
5 Reasons Barth Rejected Universalism
1. The “No Principles” Principle
Barth will not accept universalism because he sees it as the application of a theological “principle,” something that Barth consistently refused to allow in any properly christocentric theology. Our theology should be built on a person, Jesus Christ, not a principle.
This is how Barth responded to G. C. Berkouwer influential argument that the “triumph of grace” in Barth’s theology necessarily leads to universalism. Interestingly, in his response, Barth never explicitly engaged the question of universalism. Instead, he criticized Berkouwer’s identification of “grace” as the driving principle of Barth’s theology. For Barth, not even grace can serve as the abstract principle from which you can derive the kinds of universal theological truths that universalism requires.
2. The Freedom of God
Barth’s most famous response to the challenge of universalism is to contend that any form of universalism must be rejected because it constrains God’s freedom. As Barth argues,
If we are to respect the freedom of divine grace, we cannot venture the statement that it must and will finally be coincident with the world of man as such….Just as the gracious God does not need to elect or call any single man, so He does not need to elect or call all mankind. (CD II/2, 417)
Elsewhere he maintains that when God confronts the insane desire of man to reject their own salvation, it always remains within God’s freedom to reject their rejection of him (CD IV.3.1, 465f). Thus, although Barth recognizes that “theological consistency” would seem to require some form of universalism, he concludes that “we must not arrogate to ourselves that which can be given and received only as a free gift” (CD IV/3.1, 477).
Salvation is always a gift. Therefore, we must never presume to know who or how many God will save in the end. He remains free to do as he wills irrespective of our theological systems.
3. The Paltry Power of People
Barth also rejected universalism because he felt that it relied on an overly optimistic view of humanity. Here he particularly had in mind those “second chance” views that think people will eventually respond to grace if they are just given enough time. Barth rightly points out that any such approach necessarily assumes that people are fundamentally capable of responding, lacking only sufficient opportunity to do so. Instead, Barth argues that we must view the human person as fundamentally fallen, incapable of offering any adequate response to grace apart from the empowering work of grace.
4. The Impossibly Possible Possibility
Barth was famous for using language oddly. And this is a prime example. As we’ve seen, despite Barth’s strong language regarding election and atonement, he continued to affirm that there is still a sense in which disobedience and ultimate rejection remain possible. This is what he called the “impossible possibility,” the seemingly impossible attempt to reject our own true humanity and our salvation in Christ.
Some have argued that this is Barth’s way of saying that something is truly absurd and impossible. But it would have been easy enough for Barth just to affirm its impossibility, which is precisely what he did in his earlier Romans commentary. But, by the time he wrote CD III/2, Barth preferred to speak of an impossible possibility. The addition of the positive term suggests that Barth wanted to affirm that, as inconceivable as it might be, the ultimate rejection of (at least some) human persons may in fact be possible. Impossibly possible, but still possible. This is the “threat of their rejection” (CD II.2, 319) which we cannot simply dismiss (CD IV/3.1, 477).
Despite all expectations to the contrary, the impossible remains a possibility.
5. The Fabulous Future
Finally, Barth refuses to speculate on the exact form of the future, which remains opaque in many ways to those of us living this side of eternity. Thus, we can only hope for the future “in whatever form it comes” (CD IV/3.2, 927). And it is in this context that Barth rejects the possibility of any dogmatic formulations about universalism—either for or against (CD IV/3.1, 477). We just can’t know for sure, so we should avoid making dogmatic statements.
The Hope Beyond Hope
Barth does hold out hope that everyone will be saved in the end. As he says,
There is no good reason why we should forbid ourselves…openness to the possibility that in the reality of God and man in Jesus Christ there is contained much more than we might expect and therefore the supremely unexpected withdrawal of that final threat….If for a moment we accept the unfalsified truth of the reality which even now so forcefully limits the perverted human situation, does it not point plainly in the direction of the work of a truly eternal or universal reconciliation? (CD IV/3.1, 477)
Indeed, not only is this possible, but it is a possibility for which all Christians should earnestly pray, hoping that
“in spite of everything which may seem quite conclusively to proclaim the opposite, His compassion should not fail, and that in accordance with His mercy which is ‘new every morning’ He ‘will not cast off forever’” (CD IV3.1, 477-8).
So, although Barth rejects universalism as an unavoidable theological implication, he does affirm universalism as a viable hope should God in his freedom choose to work out the implications of Christ’s election and atonement in that way.
Was Barth a universalist? Not according to him. He thought we could hope for the universal salvation of all people, but he thought that these five reasons were enough to reject universalism as a necessary conclusion.
In the next post, we’ll start to assess Barth’s approach. And, as we should with any assessment, we’ll begin with the positives. Regardless of what you think about Barth’s eventual conclusions, I think we can identify at least four things about his approach that are worth affirming. So stick around to see what those might be.
(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. You can find the rest of the series here.)
 e.g. The Epistle to the Romans (OUP, 1968), 300.