3 Reasons Barth Is a Problem (Evangelicals & Universalism, part 5)

Do evangelicals have anything to learn from universalists? That’s the question we’ve been exploring for a couple of weeks now. And we’ve been using Karl Barth as our conversation partner along the way. Although we’ve seen that he rejected the label “universalist,” there are good reasons for thinking that Barth’s theology leans pretty strongly in that direction. So that makes him a useful test case for whether evangelicals and universalists can hang out together and have interesting conversations.

In the last post, I argued that there are at least four lessons we can learn from how Barth approaches the question of universalism. And they are important lessons. In this post, however, we need to turn the page and ask where the problems are. A good conversation doesn’t mean that we have to just nod our heads politely at everything the other person has to say. That may be appropriate when the person next to you at the dinner party says something particularly stupid, and you decide that it just isn’t worth the time and effort it would take to explain why. So you let it pass. But a real conversation is one in which both the other person and the topic matter to you. And that kind of conversation requires a more meaningful kind of engagement.

3 Reasons Barth Is a Problem

Even if we’re convinced by now that there are good reasons for introducing Barth to our evangelical friends, we should also recognize several important weaknesses in his theology at this point. Unfortunately, I will need to move through this final section relatively quickly. But most of these critiques have been developed extensively by others. So I will just summarize them here for the purposes of demonstrating that introducing Barth to evangelicals should include helping them identify the important weaknesses in any particular theological position.

1. It’s the Bible, Stupid

The biggest concern that evangelicals have always had with universalism is that it simply does not seem biblically-grounded given the many texts supporting the reality of Hell as the eventual destiny of those who reject Jesus. And we have seen nothing in our conversation with Barth to suggest that this is not still a concern with his position. Although Barth does extensive exegesis throughout his work on election and the atonement, he fails to offer a robust exegetical argument specifically at those points when he is dealing with the question of universalism. Instead, by the time he gets around to asking whether universalism is an option, he feels that he’s already assembled his soteriological puzzle in such a way that the answer to universalism is clear. But that is simply inadequate given the many biblical texts that speak directly to the question of universalism. Barth owes his readers a more sustained engagement with the biblical texts on this specific issue. 

2. Can God Create a Rock So Big That He Can’t Crush an Incoherent Theologian with It?

In addition to Barth’s exegesis, the biggest weakness in his response to the universalist charge is his appeal to divine freedom. As we’ve seen, Barth refuses to affirm universalism despite the fact that “theological consistency” would see to require it, because he thinks that God always remains free to act however he chooses. This creates at least two sizable problems.

First, it seems to commit Barth to the position that God can simply will contradictory realities into existence. In other words, it would seem that he can decree that all humans are eternally elect-in-Christ and irreversibly redeemed through the atonement and that they may eventually be lost anyway. Although any attempt to wrestle with divine realities will result in some paradoxes—i.e., theological convictions that seem difficult to reconcile with one another—this appears to be more of a straightforward contradiction: two states of affairs that appear mutually exclusive. And it’s not clear how even God can simply will mutually contradictory states of affairs into being.

Second, from Barth’s appeal to divine freedom it would seem to follow that we cannot affirm confidently the truth of any theological position. Even God’s eternal decision to be God-for-us could be called into question, since God would remain free to transform himself into God-against-us whenever he so chooses. And this in turn means that Jesus would not be the full revelation of the divine being, as Barth so consistently emphasized, but only the revelation of God as he has chosen to be for now. Barth rejects this possibility, as he must for his christocentric theology to work, by appealing to the fact that God’s self-determination is eternal and, therefore, unchangeable. But this would seem to be the case with his eternal decree of election as well. So it’s not clear how Barth can affirm that God is always free to change the latter without calling into question the reliability of the former.

Thus, Barth’s argument here seems to be a tacit admission that his theology does entail universalism, but that God’s freedom means the impossible possibility could still happen. And it is precisely at this point that the danger of incoherence looms large.

3. Groundless Hope Is No Hope at All

Given the prior two objections, then, we must really question the adequacy of Barth’s conclusion that we not only can but must hope for the universal salvation of all human persons. As much as I would like this to be true, it’s not clear that he has given me any reason to believe that it is. He certainly hasn’t provided the kind of conclusive exegetical arguments that we would need to be convinced that universal salvation is a viable way of reading the relevant biblical texts. Instead, he has simply offered an appeal to divine freedom, suggesting that no matter what God has revealed in Scripture, and in Christ for that matter, it’s always possible that God will choose to do things differently in the end. That not only fails to ground hope adequately, it threatens to cut against the grain of true Christian hope entirely, leaving open the possibility that, in the end, no one will be saved.

(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.)



9 Responses to “3 Reasons Barth Is a Problem (Evangelicals & Universalism, part 5)”

  1. PGR December 19, 2012 at 9:02 am #

    #3 is a great point. Given Barth’s construal of God’s freedom (capriciousness?) maybe we all end up in hell anyway. Yikes!

  2. Darren December 19, 2012 at 3:25 pm #

    Mark –

    Thanks very much for an interesting series, and a desire to engage Barth from an Evangelical point of view. Let me set the exegetical critique aside, as it would require extensive proof-texting on Barth’s engagements with those texts and the sufficiency of his work there. If I may, I’d like to suggest that the fact that you conclude that Barth is ultimately incoherent — that his position on divine freedom undercuts not only his position on election but also the reliability of just about any theological proposition — indicates that perhaps there is something missing in your analysis. I want to point to this statement in particular:

    “From Barth’s appeal to divine freedom it would seem to follow that we cannot affirm confidently the truth of any theological position. Even God’s eternal decision to be God-for-us could be called into question, since God would remain free to transform himself into God-against-us whenever he so chooses.”

    As it happens I was just reading an essay on this subject today, and (though I haven’t finished it yet) I wonder what you might think of it. It’s the first essay in the new January 2013 issue of Modern Theology, on Barth’s view of divine freedom. There Han-luen Kantzer Komline evaluates Moltmann’s critique of Barth on freedom — which may be the same critique you have reproduced here.

    In short: It would seem that a proper distinction between God’s potentia absoluta and God’s potentia ordinata (without turning Barth into a nominalist, as the history of the terms might suggest) resolves the incoherence you are worried about. Once God has chosen to do something or to be some way (in this case, for us and our salvation in Jesus Christ) God cannot not do that or be that. There no possibility that He will not do what He has elected to do. This is not because God’s freedom is restricted (other than a gracious self-restriction, that is), or because election is eternal, but because God’s freedom includes His freedom to self-determine in love. It is not a freedom to deliberate between a number of choices and to ‘keep His options open’ even after choosing, as it were. Rather God’s freedom is demonstrated in, and not abrogated by, His self-commitment to creatures.

    If your analysis is correct, and God’s absolute power overshadows God’s ordained will as a real (if unexercised) possibility, then you are right that creatures can’t rely on much of anything as given. One wonders if theology itself would still be possible. But I don’t think Barth went there.

    Blessings on you this Christmas!

  3. Bobby Grow December 23, 2012 at 1:42 pm #

    I think I would have to go with Darren on this one.

    I would add, I would think that Barth’s actualism should go along way it assuaging the fear that there might be a God behind the back of Jesus; as if his freedom in his inner life as at any way non-correlative with his revealed life in his outer life in Christ. In other words “It is finished” … so to speak.

  4. Marc Cortez December 24, 2012 at 7:26 am #

    Darren, thanks for a great comment. A copule of quick responses:

    (1) The problem with many of the defenses of Barth that I’ve seen is that they seem to offer what they wish Barth had said or what they think he should have said rather than what he actually did say. And among the more common responses is the argument from Barth’s view of non-competitive freedom. But that simply is not how Barth handles the problem. When he is specifically talking about the question of universalism, especially in the later volumes of the Dogmatics, his emphasis is on divine freedom, not creaturely freedom. I can wish he had done differently, but I have to deal with the response he actually did give.

    (2) I’m not convinced his view of non-competitive freedom would have helped here anyway. The problem here is that, as far as I know, Barth never works out precisely what this means. (This is my frustration with most of the non-competitive models of divine/human freedom on offer.) Given the strength of his claims regarding divine election and atonement, as well as his rejection of Arminian views of salvation, simply dismissing the problem by saying that humans still have some sufficient “freedom” to reject that decision and end up unsaved anyway just isn’t going to cut it.

    What I think you’re arguing is that there may be a Barthian way of responding to the question (as opposed to assessing the adequacy of Barth’s actual response, which was my focus). That may be, though I think any such approach should modify somewhat Barth’s rhetoric on either the universal effectiveness of election or atonement (possibly both).

  5. Marc Cortez December 24, 2012 at 7:27 am #

    Bobby, just to be clear, I’m not saying that Barth actually maintained some kind of God behind the back of Jesus. He is absolutely clear on that point. I’m just saying that his response on the universalism question does not seem consistent with that emphasis.

  6. Bobby Grow December 24, 2012 at 10:04 pm #

    Marc, I would think that a Barthian answer to this would be the way to approach a Barthian question, or that we need to appreciate his dialectic approach V. trying to make him answer this in an analytic mode; which seems to be the way you are trying to press him. Do you think that would be a fair way to frame the way you are approaching this? Although I do understand what you are trying to do with Barth; John Webster does this his book on Barth’s Moral Theology and Human Action in Barth’s thought (forget the exact title, just finished reading it not too long ago … maybe you’ve read this one from Webster, if so, what did you think?).

    My only point on bringing the no God behind the back of Jesus is to deal with the doctrine of God that would have to fund how Barth construes his theo-anthropology and thus human freedom as an adjunct of that, in Christ. And I would then bring this back, again, to Barth’s theological mode of dialectism which does not, by definition, move and breath with the kind of philosophical precision that trying to frame this through that kind of mode might desire.

    I’ll be curious to see what Darren thinks … hopefully he’ll respond further.

    Merry Christmas

  7. Darren December 26, 2012 at 8:20 am #

    Marc and Bobby: two things for me to add to the discussion today.

    (1) Marc, I think you’re right to observe that Barth’s understanding of divine freedom and human freedom is non-competitive. That’s not because God’s work and human work in securing the salvation of creatures are operating in different, complementary ways to the same end. It’s because the will of the creature is simply unable to “compete” with or overthrow the plan of God for reconciliation. I think we should conclude from this not that Barth has a faulty doctrine of divine freedom … but simply that he is Reformed.

    I think you’re right that Barth’s doctrine of election ultimately presses toward universalism with not a small degree of inevitability. But I don’t conclude from this that his actual views on human freedom cannot line up with what seems to be his stated position (i.e. that humans can reject God’s election). There’s some paradoxical (dialectical?) stuff going on here, but I think as a Reformed thinker Barth would finally have us conclude that the human negation of God’s election is itself negated. Like the creature’s sin, his freedom to stand in opposition to God is finally a shadow of Nothingness.

    But my basic point is that, for Barth, divine freedom does not equal a freedom for God to change His mind and do something contrary to His eternal election. Any sort of counter-factual possibilities have been nullified by God’s actual decision.

    (2) What, then, is the nature of human freedom (which you are pushing us to consider, Bobby)? Marc is right when he observes that Barth rejects Arminian views of salvation; but if we press that further we’ll see that he also rejects the underlying view of what human freedom is. Apart from Christ it is a “freedom” that is fallen, sinful, what Luther in fact called “bondage.” Jesus Christ shows us what real freedom is. Real human freedom is freedom to obey the will of the Father. To reject one’s election, then, is to perform a subhuman act — not the act of a free creature but of a creature in bondage to an (already defeated) enemy.

  8. Bobby Grow December 26, 2012 at 8:20 pm #

    In re. to Darren’s (2). The way you sketch Barth’s conception of human freedom, from a Christ conditioned direction grounded in the vicarious humanity of Christ, is the way that I would understand Barth’s conception of what a truly ontic conception of human freedom looks like; i.e. it is one that is always already for God in and through the Yes of the Son. I would agree then, that to operate in negation of this then, humanly, would actually entail a sub-human response—since there is no ground for it in the only true (archetypal) human response that is found, again, in Christ’s Yes for us.

    The nature of human freedom I have been considering, Darren, is something that Webster had sketched in the last chapter of his book on Barth’s moral anthropology and human action; it was something that Webster had constructively read from Eberhard Jüngel’s reading of Barth in this regard. As I recall the theory was to ground the ontology of humanity within, of course, the ontic scope of Christ’s humanity for us; and to do so within the realm of justification/soteriology. The end result of this, really, correlates with the basics of human freedom that you just presented above in your comment–i.e. that human freedom, genuinely speaking from Christ’s, will always be for God, which knows nothing in negation of this.

    I wish I could probe this deeper than this right now, and I will be in a writing project I will be involved with in the days to come 😉 . I think the Holy Spirit needs to be appealed to more in this discussion (Gunton was onto something in pressing this underdeveloped realm of a so call third article theology, and I intend on trying to do some research and work in this area).


  1. Recommended Reading for December 21st, 2012 | Near Emmaus - December 21, 2012

    […] Marc Cortez: Three Reasons Barth is a Problem […]

Leave a Reply:

Gravatar Image

%d bloggers like this: