Karl Barth and Universalism

By Timothy R Butler | Posted at 4:30 AM

At the beginning of May, a post of mine brought about a wonderful response from my ever thought provoking brother in Christ Eduardo. He presented three points of weakness in Barthian Neo-Orthodoxy: Natural Theology, Revelation and Universalism. I provided a response to the issue of Natural Theology here, but had not previously made it around to writing on the other two points. Tonight I will address the most common accusation against Barth: that he promotes universalism.

As in many areas, Barth does not stray from Orthodoxy at this juncture, but shifts his emphasis enough from the norm to make people uncomfortable. Additionally, Barth is many things, but precise and to the point is probably not one of them. Barth did not publish a handy little tract called Salvation: Universalism or Not? anywhere. Instead, we find hints of Barth's answer (or perhaps refusal to answer) spread throughout the five hundred odd pages on the Doctrine of Election in Kirchliche Dogmatik (Church Dogmatics) 2.2. The potential universalist bent of 2.2 is infamous. Presbyterian author Robert McAfee Brown jokes in the Collect'd Writings of St. Hereticus that a good way to remember the topic of salvation is in 2.2 is to remember that “tout” in French means “all.” Just flip to “Tout? Tout!” or “IS everyone saved? Yes, everyone.” and you can find Barth's answer (94).

So, does Barth say that all are saved? No. In fact, the patient reader will find on page 417, of the English translation, that Barth explicitly denies a traditional universalist position: insisting that all are saved impinges on God's Freedom just as much as insisting He should save any one person or none at all. If there is one thing that holds together Barth's theology it is that God is “the one who loves in freedom” (c.f.19, 95, 99). Of course, if he stopped here, one might naturally ask why anyone would think Barth a universalist. The problem is that Barth sees God's freedom as so overridingly important that he essentially takes an agnostic position on the issue. God, he says, can make the circle of “frontier crossings” — that circle of people who cross from the rejected to the elected — as wide or as narrow as He wishes (417). In His freedom, God can do whatever He wants.

What we see here is not an admittance of universalism. Instead, Barth is essentially rightly saying he does not know the mysterious will of God. How can we? We know that Jesus is the only way to salvation and that salvation requires spiritual rebirth, but just watching a group of Christians debate whether this or that person is “Christian” shows that we really don't know precisely the point at which one crosses into the Church Eternal. We know the rough outline, but questions such as what to do with “virtuous pagans” who never knew of the Gospel shows how mysterious salvation remains to us.

Like I said, Barth shifts the focus. He prods us. Why are we worrying about the litmus test of salvation? Jesus never told us to speculate about who or how many would be saved, he told us to make disciples of all nations (Mt. 28:19-20). Instead of concentrating on the negative (rejection) we should exclusively concentrate on the “future faith” of those who do not now believe (295-96). As Bradley Hanson writes in reference to Luther's view, we ought to “focus on God's revealed intention that all should be saved” (Hanson 254).

Barth's view is best justified in his own words,
“Peculiar Christendom, whose most pressing problem seems to consist in this, that God's grace in this direction should be too free, that hell, instead of being amply populated, might one day perhaps be found empty.” (Short 149)

That is, Barth does not promote universalism but questions any overriding concern in the condemned as condemned. Admittedly, as Brown jokes in his book, Barth will never face a heresy execution for “espousing a doctrine of limited atonement,” but that still does not make him a Universalist (95). Instead, he takes a more radical, yet more orthodox, position by simply rejecting the church's overactive interest in restricting God's freedom in the matter. God has told us our job (to preach the Gospel) and as such, as John Keats says, that is “all [we] need to know.”

Works Cited
Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics. Vol. 2.2 Trans. G. W. Bromiley, J. C. Campbell, Iain Wilson, et. al. Ed. G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1957.

Brown, Robert McAfee. The Collect'd Writings of St. Hereticus. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1964.

Hanson, Bradley C. Introduction to Christian Theology. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997.

Short, Robert L. The Parables of Peanuts. New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2002.

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