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.


byron smith said...

Thanks Ben, I've often heard people throwing around claims of Barth's universalism and that really helps to see why he denies both positions.

One quote I've heard attributed to him is "I do not teach universalism. I do not not teach universalism." Beautiful!

PS I've really enjoyed being your "blog of the week" for about the last three weeks... :-)

Anonymous said...

Appropriately enough, Flannery O'Connor narratively wrestles with the question of universalism in a very Barthian and von Balthasarian way, and the epiphanies in her stories are always demonstrations that, in the most unpromising of circumstances and the most unlikely of characters, salvation is always snapping at our heals, so hope remains.

Anonymous said...

I think discussions around the final, ultimate scope of God's salvation must take place within the context of hope and not of certitude. Hope and certainty belong to two different language games and we should not confuse one for the other. I deliberately say that this discussion must take place in the context of hope because I think that this is the position that we are lead to by the biblical witness.

However, hoping that God will save all is far more than simply shrugging one's shoulders and thinking, "well, God will do what God will do." No, if we persist in the hope (but not the certainty) that God will save all, then this has significant implications for how we live as Christians. As Moltmann has reminded us, eschatology matters, and this particular area of eschatology is no different. How does the ethic of a hopeful universalist differ from the ethic of an a person who holds to a doctrine of eternal death or damnation? I suspect it should differ quite a bit. If it does not then I think that the implication is that our "hope" is simply resignation cloaked in virtuous language.

Finally, it is also important for us to remember that "hope does not disappoint because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the holy Spirit." .

David W. Congdon said...

Ben, I agree with everything you say. While Barth is surely right to oppose what Newbigin calls "rationalistic universalism," that's not what universalism as a belief has to be. There is another quote which I recommend reading. I posted it as §3: The Doctrine of God, Part 1. In that quote, Barth gives himself his own answer to the issue of a system. He says that we cannot impose upon God anything, because God is sovereign and free, but if God has revealed Godself in God's being-in-act, then we can draw upon God's self-revelation for how we ought to think about specific doctrinal issues. My contention is that God's self-revelation is strong enought to affirm universalism above the other available options. My central argument has not been posted yet, but it should be posted in a week or so.

Thanks again for the plug. I look forward to the conversation on this topic. Also, there have been a few intereting posts on universalism by Keith DeRose over at the Generous Orthodoxy Think Tank.

Weekend Fisher said...

God created us in his image: with a limited sovereignty of our own, such that we actually have some independence from him, which is what made the fall possible. If we have some independence from him, God's will is not the end of the story ... and it's God's will that his will is not the only one that matters. The reality of creation must recognize that God has granted us a measure of self-determination in the image of God. The image of God which distinguishes us would be destroyed if God crossed the line to coercing our change in will toward him. Which is not at all to say that God is passive towards us, or that salvation is a mere offer; it is simply to say there is a level of force which would be self-defeating if God's objective is to redeem us and restore us to the image of God.

David W. Congdon said...

Weekend fisher, come over to my site and present some of these views there, since I'd like to hear your thoughts on the quotes from Barth and my own ideas. I happen to disagree with most of what you said, but I want to offer you a chance to flesh out what you've said in more detail. I agree with independence, but that does not logically entail self-determination. I think what you have unconsciously advocated is semi-Pelagianism. But you are not alone. So has most of evangelical America.

Guy Davies said...

If universalism is true, why does the Bible teach the condemnation of the unbeliver? Why does even Jesus, God's ultimate Word, speak of hell as the outer darkness, a place beyond grace and hope? Universalism has to screen out these uncomfortable features of God's Word.

David W. Congdon said...

The Bible also speaks of the salvation of all and the reconciliation of the world in Jesus Christ. Limited or particular atonement proponents have to screen out these uncomfortable features of God's Word.

Guy Davies said...

D. W. Congdon,

Yes, Paul wrote that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. But that does not mean that all humanity will be ultimately reconciled to God. Paul is clear only those who have faith in Christ as Saviour and Lord will be saved. He taught that those who do not know God and obey the gospel of Jesus Christ will be subject to the righteous judgement of God and suffer everlasting destruction.

I am not at all uncomfortable with the Biblical teaching that Christ's death acheived the salvation of all God's people. I rejoice that a great multitude that no man can number will cry out, "Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne and to the Lamb!"

Guy Davies

Anonymous said...

If hell is not empty - as Barth and von Balthasar beautifully express the Christian hope - I suspect that WF's self-determined individuals will constitute the bulk of its population. The idea of freedom assumed in such an anthropology is but the golden calf of consumer "choice" around which the opulent denizens of the United States of Arminius sing and dance in chains. DW speaks of American evangelicalism's semi-pelagian captivity. David Bentley Hart is even more emphatic: "Hell," he writes, "is the perfect concretization of ethical freedom."

As for EP's reference to condemnation, it is true that ultimate exclusion remains possible - but for precisely the same reason as a final apokatastasis is foreseeable - the freedom of God. But only a perversely nominalist understanding of the potestas Dei, which fails to see that God's love is the grammar of his will (not the reverse), would reckon the libertas Dei as the freedom to save or damn. Moreover, a thick description of scripture hardly encourages a reading of the last judgement "as a sorting of satisfactory and unsatisfactory human specimens" (in Robert Jenson's wry phrase). Restoration, not condemnation, is the keynote of a truly evangelical biblical eschatology.

The ancient creeds themselves affirm "the life everlasting" (Apostles' Creed) and "the life of the world to come" (Nicene Creed), but they say nothing about hell. Hell may be thought -just - as a kind of theological foil, a parenthetical "What if?", but it is not - thank God! - an article of faith. It cannot be preached but only spoken as an aside, as a parenthesis, to the main text - spoken only, that is (to turn Barth's famous phrase on its head) as a possible impossibility.

Weekend Fisher said...

It's funny but expected. The Calvo/Arminian debate (or Augustinian/Pelagian debate, if you'd rather) has so dominated this angle of discussions that people don't really make further distinctions. At what point does God choose to limit himself, and why? At Christ, and because of Christ, would be my "short version" answer. But sure, I'll pop over to the Congdon blog.

Take care & God bless

Ben Myers said...

WF said: "The Calvo/Arminian debate ... has so dominated this angle of discussions that people don't really make further distinctions" -- yes, you've got a point there. And of course Barth's own approach is completely outside the (very "limited") scope of this debate.

Also, WF, I see what you mean when you say that universalism would eliminate the freedom of creatures -- but here, too, Barth approaches the problem from a completely different angle, since his point is that universalism would eliminate the freedom of God!

David W. Congdon said...

Ben, I think you are looking too narrowly at that passage from Barth. Barth is speaking about a human concept that determines (from the human side) what God is able to do, or what God must do. This is not appropriate. But Barth elsewhere states openly that hell cannot be a reality for any person because of Jesus Christ. If that's not universalism, then I don't know what is. The point is, universalism does not have to be construed as a human doctrine about what we want to see happen. It can also be a doctrine about what God has revealed will be the case in the eschaton.

Ben Myers said...

By the way, if anyone wants to explore Barth's view further, there is a superb book on the topic: G. C. Berkouwer, The Triumph of Grace in the Theology of Karl Barth (1956).

Although Berkouwer is critical of Barth, he beautifully uncovers the logic of Barth's position: Barth stands at the very "threshold of the apokatastasis" but then always turns back because of "the freedom, the gift of grace". It is above all this "gift-character of grace" which is undermined by universalism: "The error of universalism does not lie in glorying in God's grace, but in integrating grace into a system of conclusions which is in conflict with grace as a sovereign gift" (p. 362).

Anonymous said...

Yes, Ben, Berkouwer's main criticism is that Barth "blunts" the problem of evil with his doctrine of grace. Barth himself, while well chuffed by the book, thought "freedom" a more accurate desription of grace than "triumph", and indeed instead of "grace" he "would have much preferred . . . Jesus Christ."

It is - don't you agree - a theological publishing scandal that Berkouwer's masterpiece has never had a paperback edition, and that even the hardcover has long been out of print.

Ben Myers said...

"... a publishing scandal" -- yes, absolutely! Berkouwer's Triumph of Grace is one of the best three or four books ever written about Barth's theology -- it's really a work of interpretive genius.

Perhaps we should ask the good people at Wipf & Stock to consider doing a paperback reprint -- they have been doing a good job reprinting several of the older Barth-related books...

Anonymous said...

Barth wants to focus not so much on who's saved as on where salvation is, and that's of course in Jesus Christ. Who's saved is not for man to know, and therefore Barth wants, through doctrine, to show that we should avoid speculation on that, regardless we call ourselves universalists or non-universalists.

In Christ everyone is elected to salvation, outside Christ everyone is reprobated, in hell I guess.

I think Barths doctrine of election reminds a bit of Luthers view of man as simul iustus et peccator, man is simul electus (in Christo) et reprobatus (extra Christum).

David W. Congdon said...

Petter ö, that is quite correct. Well said.

I have a friend who works for Wipf & Stock, so I'll ask him about that.

WF, I have responded to you on my blog, in case you have not seen it.

Anonymous said...

you've explained why Barth was not a universalist, but you said nothing about why you aren't.

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