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Did Karl Barth Teach Contingent or Necessary Universalism? ::: — :::

In spite of the fact that the depiction of Karl Barth’s doctrine of justification appears implicitly (if not explicitly) to amount to universalism—that all people will ultimately be saved—Barth himself denied that he ever taught any such a doctrine: “I do not teach it (universalism), but I also do not teach it.”[1]  Barth did not deny that the logic of his position appears to lead to universalism.  In fact, he makes several comments on the issue that appear to indicate that he was acutely aware of this dilemma[2] but insisted that the freedom of God prohibits this conclusion. 

As in many other cases, theology must here refrain from drawing logically consistent conclusions from its premises for the sake of its own subject matter.[3]      

Even though theological consistency might seem to lead our thoughts and utterances most clearly in this direction [that is, the direction of universalism], we must not arrogate to ourselves that which can be given and received only as a free gift.[4] 

[Because God controls grace and he is free] we cannot venture the statement that it (the circle [of the redeemed]) must and will finally be coincident with the world of man as such.[5] 

Many, therefore, attempt to interpret Barth in a way consistent with his denial.  Geoffrey W. Bromiley concludes:

At this point Barth bluntly rejects any necessary universalism as “historical metaphysics.” On the other hand, since all is by grace, he will not rule out the possibility of this final enlargement [of the circle of redemption] in Jesus Christ. … Nevertheless, it is not apparent why, in his view, the Holy Spirit in his ministry of calling should not positively fulfil in all individuals the one eternal will of the triune God.  A gap arises here which Barth can finally fill only by an appeal to the divine freedom.[6] 

John Colwell defends the same position with more feisty remarks: “[I]f some of Barth’s critics refuse to take this divine freedom seriously with respect (especially) to Barth’s doctrine of election and consequently suspect him of implicit universalism then that is their problem rather than his and probably says more about them than it says about him.”[7] 

Others, however, are not convinced that Barth can be let off the horns of the dilemma so easily.  Hans Ur von Balthasar, for example, thinks Barth is kidding himself.

Nonetheless, despite these demurrals, Barth’s doctrine of election does not leave much room open for possibility.  There is something inevitable and necessary in his views.  What is definitive in Barth’s thought is grace and blessing, and all reprobation and judgment are merely provisional. … Actually, given his premises, Barth really cannot discuss this issue in any other way.  True, he gives lip service to our inability to survey the full implications of the activity of the Word of God.  He speaks of a healthy “inconsistency” in dogmatics.  But these are mere words, because he has already immured the idea of an all-encompassing redemption in the very groundwork and foundation of his doctrine of creation.”[8]  

Perhaps the most thorough consideration of potential ways Barth’s doctrine might escape the apparent inevitability is found in Oliver Crisp’s article, “On Barth’s Denial of Universalism.”[9]  He makes several observations about Barth’s position.  For example, Barth is not arguing (like traditional Arminianism) for an atonement universal in scope, not effectiveness,[10] nor is he arguing that Christ’s atonement is only potentially effective for all.  Barth argues that the atonement is actually effective for all human agents.[11]  Also, a well recognized point, Barth emphasizes salvation as “knowledge” (through faith) that one is already saved rather than a means by which salvation is appropriated (as in the tradition Reformation formulas).[12]  Whereas the Reformers would say “If you believe [and repent] you will be saved,” Barth is saying, “You are saved, therefore, believe and repent!”[13]  Much of Barth’s writing appears to demonstrate that the free will of man as a potential loop hole in Barth’s thought is not a logical option.  Crisp offers the following remarks from Barth.

[O]n the basis of this decree of His the only truly rejected man is His own Son … so that it can no longer fall on other men or be their concern.  … Their concern is still the suffering of the existence which they have prepared for themselves by their godlessness (in the shadow of that which the One has suffered from them) – and it is bitter enough to have to suffer this existence.  Their concern is still to be aware of the threat of their rejection. But it cannot now be their concern to suffer the execution of this threat, to suffer the eternal damnation which their godlessness deserves.  Their desire and their undertaking are pointless in so far as their only end can be to make them rejected.  And this is the very goal which the godless cannot reach, because it has already been taken away by the eternally decreed offering of the Son of God to suffer in place of the godless, and cannot any longer be their goal.[14] [italics mine]

After concluding that neither a compatibilist nor libertarian view of the free will of man could unloose Barth from this predicament,[15] Crisp specifically addresses the arguments above concerning Barth’s denial on the basis of God’s freedom.

Barth, however, is happy to withhold this requirement of theological consistency, because he deems that such a move would compromise divine freedom … Bettis is even willing to go as far as to say, “Barth does not reject universalism because the future of the pagan is uncertain.  He rejects universalism because the future of all men is uncertain.”  But if this [is] true, then Barth’s attempted way out, via divine freedom, yields a contradiction.  We can express this as follows, using the i-iii propositions stated earlier:

i. Christ’s atonement is universal in scope and efficacy …

ii. Christ is the Elect One and therefore the sole member of the set ‘elect’, in whom all human agents are elected …

iii. Christ is the Elect One whose atonement for the sin of human agents is universal in scope and efficacy, and all human agents are members of the set ‘elect in Christ’.

But what Barth is claiming at this juncture in his argument is something like:

iv. Because God is free, the eschatological destiny of all humanity is uncertain.

The problem is that iv simply does not appear to be consistent with i-iii.  In fact, it seems to contradict i-iii.  One cannot consistently hold both that all humanity have been (derivatively) elected, so that all their sin has been efficaciously atoned for by Christ, and that the soteriological status of all humanity is uncertain.[16]

Thus Crisp concludes that either Barth’s claim to not teach universalism is “disingenuous (he was a universalist), or just plain muddled (his position is not coherent).” He also dismisses a third option—that Barth was unaware that his position logically entailed some form of universalism—the grounds that is seems “unlikely.”[17]  Crisp could have easily argued also on the basis of Barth’s own understanding of God’s freedom, for it is Barth himself who poses the question: “Where do we see the freedom of God more clearly than in the justification of sinful man?”[18]  For these reasons, while some theologians attempt to allow Barth’s denials of teaching universalism to play the decisive role in categorizing his thought (i.e. in answering the question, “Was Barth a universalist?”), others give more weight to the nuances of his actual position in concluding that he was, in fact, a universalist. 


[1] Karl Barth.  Cited in Eberhard Jüngel, Karl Barth, A Theological Legacy, trans. Garrett E. Paul (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Westminster Press, 1986), 44-45. 

[2] Crisp humorously coins this as the universal dilemma.  Oliver Crisp, “On Barth’s Denial of Universalism,” in Themelios, vol 29 no 1 (2003): 26. 

[3] Karl Barth.  Cited in Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Theology of Karl Barth, trans. Edward T. Oakes, S.J. (San Francisco, California: Ignatius Press, 1992), 186.

[4] Karl Barth.  Cited in Oliver Crisp, “On Barth’s Denial of Universalism,” 28.  cf. CD IV/3: 477. 

[5] Karl Barth.  Cited in Geoffrey W. Bromiley, An Introduction to the Theology of Karl Barth (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing, 1979), 95. 

[6] Geoffrey W. Bromiley, An Introduction to the Theology of Karl Barth, 95. 

[7] Jon Colwell.  Cited in Crisp, “On Barth’s Denial of Universalism,” 18. 

[8] Hans Ur von Balthasar, The Theology of Karl Barth, 186.  cf. McGrath, The Making of Modern German Christology: 1750-1990, 138. 

[9] Crisp, “On Barth’s Denial of Universalism,” 18-29.  

[10] Ibid., 21.

[11] Ibid., 25. 

[12] Ibid., 21. 

[13] Ibid. 

[14] Karl Barth.  Cited in Crisp, “On Barth’s Denial of Universalism,” 22. cf. CD II/2: 318-19. 

[15] Crisp, “On Barth’s Denial of Universalism,” 23-25.

[16] Ibid., 28-29.  

[17] Ibid., 19.

[18] CD IV/1: 529.  The confusion about Barth’s position can be seen in the field of systematics.  In Erickson’s treatment, for example, he seems to contradict himself about whether or not Barth answers the question of whether all persons are saved.  This is not to say that Barth holds to universal salvation, a subject he deals with very cautiously without ever really committing himself. … There is no absolute difference between the elect and the rejected, the believers and unbelievers, according to Barth, for all have been elected. … Christians from a traditional background might wish to pray open the question of whether the rejected ones who are actually elect are also saved, but Barth will not open that tangled issue.  The church should not take too seriously the unbelief of the rejected ones.  In the ultimate sense, there is no rejection of humanity by God.  God has in Christ chosen rejection for himself, but election for humanity.”  Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, second edition (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 1998), 936.  cf. Geisler, who simply places Barth as “one of the most famous theologians in modern times to embrace universalism” without any hesitancy or clarification.  Norman Geisler, Systematic Theology, Volume Three: Sin and Salvation (Bloomington, Minnesota: Bethany House Publishers, 2004), 389.      


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  1. […] ‘Did Karl Barth Teach Contingent or Necessary Universalism?’ Theophilogue […]

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