Roger Olson on Barth & universalism

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Over three years ago Roger Olson, Foy Valentine Professor of Christian Theology of Ethics at George W. Truett Theological Seminary of Baylor University, penned a very wide ranging discussion/post on his blog about the vexed question of whether Karl Barth was a universalist. If you have read CD II/2 or even if you haven’t, this is a very comprehensive overview – some ten and a half thousand words!  See the URL below.

One thing is sure you can’t put Barth in a nice tidy box!

The ‘chapters’ in CD II/2 are

  • 33     The Election of Jesus Christ

The election of grace is the eternal beginning of all the ways and works of God in Jesus Christ. In Jesus Christ God in His free grace determines Himself for sinful man and sinful man for Himself. He therefore takes upon Himself the rejection of man with all its consequences, and elects man to participation in His own glory.

  • 34     The Election of the Community

The election of grace, as the election of Jesus Christ, is simultaneously the eternal election of the one community of God by the existence of which Jesus Christ is to be attested to the whole world and the whole world summoned to faith in Jesus Christ. This one community of God in its form as Israel has to serve the representation of the divine judgment, in its form as the Church the representation of the divine mercy. In its form as Israel it is determined for hearing, and in its form as the Church for believing the promise sent forth to man. To the one elected community of God is given in the one case its passing, and in the other case its coming form.

  • 35     The Election of the Individual

The man who is isolated over against God is as such rejected by God. But to be this man can only be by the godless man’s own choice. The witness of the community of God to every individual man consists in this: that this choice of the godless man is void; that he belongs eternally to Jesus Christ and therefore is not rejected, but elected by God in Jesus Christ; that the rejection which he deserves on account of his perverse choice is borne and cancelled by Jesus Christ; and that he is appointed to eternal life with God on the basis of the righteous, divine decision. The promise of his election determines that as a member of the community he himself shall be a bearer of its witness to the whole world. And the revelation of his rejection can only determine him to believe in Jesus Christ as the One by whom it has been borne and cancelled.

To choose or as the classic term for praedestinare renders it, ‘to elect’ is for Barth synonymous with such modern terms as freedom, self-determination and autonomy. To choose is the primal act of freedom or self determination. What does God choose?

….the choice of God is the election of grace. It consists of the fact that “God has elected fellowship with man for Himself” and simultaneously “fellowship with Himself for man” : (CD II/2 162).

Regarding the possibility of ‘universalism’ (that all will be saved) Barth addressed this in a brilliant little book The Humanity of God, John Knox Press, 1960, pp. 61-2.  This book contains three addresses he gave, which were originally published as separate monographs in German by Evangelische Verlag A.G.,  Zollikon- Zurich.

The famous quote below is taken from the second address, which is stating that the deity of God, something which Barth was at great pains to emphasise (totaliter aliter – wholly other) includes His humanity.

One should not surrender himself in any case to the panic which this word (universalism)seems to spread abroad, before informing himself exactly concerning its possible sense or non-sense. One should at least be stimulated by the passage, Colossians 1:19, which admittedly states that God has determined through His Son as His image and as the first-born of the whole Creation to ‘reconcile all things to himself,’ to consider whether the concept could not perhaps have a good meaning. The same could be said of parallel passages. One question should for a moment be asked, in view of the ‘danger’ with which one may see this concept gradually surrounded. What of the ‘danger’ of the eternally skeptical-critical theologian who is ever and again suspiciously questioning, because fundamentally always legalistic and therefore in the main morosely gloomy? Is not his presence among us currently more threatening than that of the unbecomingly cheerful indifferentism or even antinomianism, to which one with a certain understanding of universalism could in fact deliver himself? This much is certain, that we have no theological right to set any sort of limits to the loving-kindness of God which has appeared in Jesus Christ. Our theological duty is to see and understand it as being still greater than we had seen before”.

Was Karl Barth a Universalist? A New Look at an Old Question


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