Friday, 23 June 2006

Why I am not a universalist

On our new blog of the week, The Fire and the Rose, David Congdon has been posting a remarkably interesting series on the topic “Why I am a universalist.” He draws extensively on Karl Barth’s theology in support of a universalist view of grace. Naturally we can try to press Barth’s theology in this direction if we wish. But we shouldn’t forget that Barth himself was always sharply critical of “universalism.”

For Barth, the grace of God is characterised by freedom. On the one hand, this means that we can never impose limits on the scope of grace; and on the other hand, it means that we can never impose a universalist “system” on grace. In either case, we would be compromising the freedom of grace—we would be presuming that we can define the exact scope of God’s liberality. So Barth’s theology of grace includes a dialectical protest: Barth protests both against a system of universalism and against a denial of universalism! The crucial point is that God’s grace is free grace: it is nothing other than God himself acting in freedom. And if God acts in freedom, then we can neither deny nor affirm the possibility of universal salvation.

In Barth’s own words: “The proclamation of the Church must make allowance for this freedom of grace. Apokatastasis Panton? No, for a grace which automatically would ultimately have to embrace each and every one would certainly not be free grace. It surely would not be God’s grace. But would it be God’s free grace if we could absolutely deny that it could do that? Has Christ been sacrified only for our sins? Has he not ... been sacrificed for the whole world? … [Thus] the freedom of grace is preserved on both these sides” (Barth, God Here and Now, pp. 41-42).

For Barth, then, we can neither affirm nor deny the possibility that all will be saved. So what can we do? Barth’s answer is clear: we can “hope” (see CD IV/3, pp. 477-78). And as Hans Urs von Balthasar has also shown, there is all the difference in the world between believing in universal salvation and hoping for it.

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