Bernard Ramm – Karl Barth & Universalism


In 2002 M. James Sawyer (Professor of Theology, Pacific Islands Evangelical Seminary, Guam), who was then Associate Professor of Theology at Western Seminary. Portland, Oregon, reviewed Millard J. Erickson’s The Evangelical Left: Encountering Postconservative Evangelical Theology (Baker, 1997). One of the theologians whom Erickson focussed on was the late Baptist Theologian Bernard Ramm (1916-1992). “Ramm began his career solidly in the historic conservative evangelical camp with an expertise in science and an interest in hermeneutics. However, as he progressed he discovered that the peculiar form of theology that he had inherited was forged out of the fundamentalist-modernist debates of the early twentieth century, rather than reflecting the wider Reformation heritage. He further discovered (rightly) that liberalism did not begin with Schleiermacher but with the Neologians nearly a century earlier. In discovering this he saw the profound influence the Enlightenment has had on the theological task and came to the conclusion that fundamentalism had rejected the Enlightenment and become obscurantist, while liberalism had capitulated to the Enlightenment and lost its message. This caused Ramm to look for a model that would do justice to the intellectual situation while remaining true to the Scriptures. He found such a model in Karl Barth”.

There is no doubt that Christian thinkers and theologians such as Ramm found in Barth a helpful travelling companion.  For example, the motif of the three forms of the Word of God, that is as it is revealed supremely in Jesus Christ, passed down as written through the Scriptural Witness, and then proclaimed through the Preaching of the Church, has proved very helpful for those who have struggled with a model of revelation & doctrine of the Scriptures that has been stifling. Much has been written on the mode of revelation along with dissatisfaction with the logocentrism of ‘propositional revelation’. Ramm became a classic example of an overturning of this kind of paradigm (the view of plenary, inerrant, verbal inspiration of the Scriptures). He was famous for his classic text “Protestant Biblical Interpretation’, which was my hermeneutics text at Bible College in the early 1970s. In 1980 Gregory Bolich published his study on Barth and Evangelicalism [1], a relationship fraught with difficulties and misunderstanding, and mentioned Ramm as someone who was ready to explore the substance of Barth’s work. His book ‘After Fundamentalism’ (see below) in 1983, sent shock waves throughout the evangelical camp as one of their staunchest defenders of the faith declared ‘Barth’s theology is a restatement of Reformed theology written in the aftermath of the enlightenment but not capitulating to it’ (1983:14). In other words the Barthian paradigm was (for Ramm) a genuinely helpful response to the post enlightenment spiritual wasteland.

I have gone back to After Fundamentalism many times, as nearly 20 years ago It was a breath of fresh air. I found his chapter on Universalism very helpful and have posted it below. Ramm was irenic in the way he saw both sides to this dilemma but at the same time, as I said in my introduction to Election, Barth and the French Connection, he was right to focus on what he saw as the central concern of Barth: “….the significance of the lives of people who are not Christian. Does the gospel consign to meaninglessness all those people who have never heard it or never believed it? Are non-Christians the waste products of the plan of salvation?” He concluded his chapter with a strong challenge: “Few things are more un-Christian than a juridical, stony response to the problem of the lostness of billions of human beings”.

Ramm raises the very relevant and important issue of our responsibility in mission – something he says Barth shared despite what some commentators have said about Barth and missiology. I suggest that limited or definite atonement is not the way to resolve the dilemma of those who do not hear the good news or the fate of those who remain indifferent. Will it or is it even the way we should ease our consciences regarding all those who seem to remain outside of God’s saving grace despite the all-embracing love of God for his creation? Using the well-worn adage of ‘sufficiency’ and ‘efficiency’ with regard to human response to the gospel may have some merit. Who are we to attempt to resolve this tension you might ask? We have to live with this antinomy (a contradiction between two beliefs or conclusions – a paradox), as I think Barth did, and not put forward a restrictive view of God’s love as an excuse to not get involved in mission to those who have never heard like Dr Ryland to William Carey “Young man, sit down; when God is pleased to convert the heathen world, He will do it without your help or mine.” That is, I would suggest, a cop out and the history of modern missions, of which Carey was the father, is a demonstration that we are responsible – ‘to whom much is given much is required’. Israel failed in her missional vocation but nevertheless God’s purposes were worked out. Will we fulfil His purposes in our day? Hiding behind a limited atonement view or resigning ourselves that all will be well does not absolve us of our human responsibility before God to make disciples of all nations.

Bernard Ramm on Universalism from his book  “After Fundamentalism”

As noted earlier, one of the great documents of the Enlightenment was Gottfried Lessing’s drama, Nathan the Wise. Except for the Hitler years, it has always played somewhere in Germany ever since its publication. The theme of the play is religious tolerance. It centres on three rings. The owner of the first ring was blessed of God and humanity. He was to give the ring to the son who seemed the best fulfil the meaning of the ring. The day came when a father had three sons each deserving of the ring. Therefore he had to perfect copies made of the original, so perfect that none could ever to detect which was the original. The three rings were Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Each bestowed the fundamental blessing of religion, which to Lessing was spirit and power. A debate over which son had the original ring was meaningless. So is the debate over which religion is the true religion.

Since the time of Lessing, we have learned much more of Africa and Asia, their religions and their philosophies. This knowledge has increased our problems. For example, what is the relationship of the Christian faith to the great civilisations of other continents and their ancient religions? What is the proper Christian response to the world population, which is growing far faster than the Christian population, so that the Christian population is becoming a smaller and smaller minority?

One response is to pick up some version of universalism, as pioneered by the great Church Father Origen (A.D. 185-254). If the species was lost in one man, it will be redeemed by one man, Christ – devil and all, Buddhists, Hindu, Moslems, and Animists!

In recent times, other alternatives have been suggested. One is the doctrine of the secret church. This doctrine teaches that God reaches people by the obvious means of the preaching of the gospel but also by secret means unknown to the church. Hence there can well be millions of Buddhists, reached by secret means of God, who are in fact Christian. Another is the concept of the anonymous Christian, which teaches that all people who in some degree reflect Christian morality and spirituality are thereby Christians even though such a conviction does not rise to the level of consciousness. Thus in large cities such as London or Berlin there are certainly thousands of people who live according to Christian morality, yet who do not attend church nor confess the name of Christ. Hence they are anonymous Christians.

In both the 19th and 20th centuries, the expression “the larger hope” has been used. This phrase expresses the belief that the gospel will reach not only those who consciously confess it, but also somehow the larger world – in this life or the next. Or as some have put it, although some may not be evangelised in this world, they will be in the next. Such hope is based on 1 Peter 3: 18-20. Still others avoid the issue by holding a doctrine of conditional immortality; namely, only believers are raised from the dead and live eternally. Another alternative is the doctrine of annihilation, which teaches that after due suffering the lost perish for ever, an idea in the background of CS Lewis’s The Great Divorce. Those who visit heaven and refuse to stay in heaven shrink away, losing their humanity until they are nothing.

As a class, evangelicals have been stoutly opposed to universalism. To them it is clear in a number of passages that there is a final separation of the saved and the lost. In the imagery of Augustine, the City of God and the City of Man finally separate, for all eternity. It is further argued that nothing cuts the nerve of evangelism and missions as does universalism. If nothing is really at stake in this life, why then should the church exert such energies in reaching the non-Christian populations of this world? It is also argued that liberal Christianity in all its forms, from Schleiermacher to Bultmann, is universalistic. Nobody is really saved or really lost in the theology of liberal Christianity.

Has Barth entered the lists for universalism or not? According to Brunner, he has; according to others, he has not. But something about Barth’s “universalism” breaks with the discussion of the past, and that is what I wish to emphasise in this discussion.

First of all, Barth argues that no person can be a universalist, because only God knows whether all shall be saved or not. To affirm that God will save all is to affirm something none of us can know. It is true the other way, too! To affirm that God will only save some is a bit of knowledge none of us have. But Barth says, wouldn’t it be nice if on judgement day grace should surprise us and save all! [3]

Barth’s final word on universalism is in Church Dogmatics (IV/3). He writes that we have no right to counter the scriptural message that there is a final separation of the saved and the lost. No matter how our theology pushes us in that direction, we must not capitulate. But, then on the next page, he returns to the idea expressed in his The Humanity of God: God might surprise us! His grace is always beyond our calculation. He may save all!

Secondly, Barth’s objectivity of salvation, in contrast to Bultmann’s subjectivity of salvation, borders on universalism. This requires some explanation. According to Barth, it was Schleiermacher who led Christian theology astray into liberal Christianity. Barth interprets Bultmann as the modern-day Schleiermacher, but with an orientation toward the philosophy of Heidegger, not toward 19th century Romanticism. Barth confesses that he has fought Bultmann with all his strength in the later volumes of his Church Dogmatics [4]even though he does not name him, and in his essay Rudolf Bultmann, An Effort to Understand Him.

Barth interprets both Schleiermacher and Bultmann as reducing the Christian message to a subject of religious experience. Schleiermacher reduced it to an experience of pious feeling; Bultmann reduced it to an existential commitment. Such a reduction of Christianity to a subjective experience denies the great objectivity of creation, revelation, the work of Christ, and the experience of salvation. To overcome Bultmann’s subjectivity, Barth defended the great objectivity of the work of Christ and the objectivity of the experience of salvation. This amounted to overkill. It gave such a great objectivity to salvation that it appeared to be universalism: so objective is the work of Christ that it includes everybody!

A third aspect of Barth’s universalism centres in the Lordship of Christ. Barth believes rather literally that all power or authority was given to Christ whether in heaven or on earth (Matthew 28:18). Thus Christ is Lord of all people, all nations, in all centuries. Christ is Lord of non-Christian – literally – as well as Christian.

Barth also argues this point from Romans 13. The New Testament teaches that all authorities (eksousia) are under the authority of Christ. With Cullmann, he believes that this includes political authorities. Hence Christ is Lord of the state – the so-called Christological foundation of the state. Accordingly, the authorities spoken of in Romans 13 are political authorities, and they are under the authority of Christ. Hence Christ’s universal Lordship includes the state. Barth’s concept of the universal Lordship of Christ also gives his theology a universal cast.

Another aspect of Barth’s universalism relates to his view of evangelism and missions. From the standpoint of de jure (legal reckoning), all the world is reconciled to God in Christ. But de facto (as things actually are), only Christians know this and confess it. But in that all people are de jure Christians, the Christian is to treat all people as brothers and sisters. Hence Christian ethics, social effects, or Christian humanitarianism is grounded in the presupposition that the whole world is de jure Christian. As seen in the discussion of humanism in this book, Barth’s humanism is based on God’s humanitarianism; and God’s humanitarianism came to full exposure in the incarnation. This basis for Christian social ethics is new and radical.

If all the world is de jure Christian, then preaching, especially evangelistic preaching, asks people to recognise in fact (de facto) what they already are de jure. Barth believes that such an approach to evangelism and missions takes the unhealthy pressure off the evangelists and missionaries who feel so compelled to win converts.

Gerrit C. Berkouwer writes in The Triumph of Grace in the Theology of Karl Barth that Barth’s view robs preaching of its seriousness, and the decision of faith of its meaningfulness. However, Barth never minimises the difference between Christian and non-Christian, as seen in his lecture Die Wirklichkeit des Neuen Menschen [5] (“The Reality of the New Man”). The Christian church is made up of those people who have heard the call of the gospel, have believed it, have experienced the new birth, and propose to live Christian lives. Barth does not convert the whole world into the church, as do many of the universalistic theologies of today. However, the weight of Berkouwer’s objection is not to be overlooked, for it reflects the spiritual weakness of all universalisms.

The main weight of Barth’s push for universalism is not about the old debate whether few be saved, or many be saved, or all be saved. His main concern is with the significance of the lives of people who are not Christian. Does the gospel consign to meaninglessness all those people who have never heard it or never believed it? Are non-Christians the waste products of the plan of salvation?

This issue must be considered in the context of something mentioned earlier in this section. Billions of people have never heard the gospel. There are easily more than 2 billion people alive today who have never heard a line of the gospel and most likely never will [6]. In terms of percentage, the church is a shrinking minority in the face of worldwide population growth. If significance for life is found only in Christ, then these millions and billions of lives are lived in insignificance.

The traditional matter of treating this problem was to make a distinction between creation and redemption. All people have significance before God in the order of creation. In so far as they live their lives in the orders of creation (for example, state, family, education, commerce, farming, and medicine), their lives have significance. Whoever fulfils the orders of creation lives a meaningful life. There is a meaning to life of the non-Christian in the orders of creation, which Thielicke calls the penultimate meaning; only in Christ is the ultimate meaning. Such reflection may help soften the problem, but it hardly resolves it.

Another solution that has been offered is to say that all people eventually live to the glory of God. Those who become Christians praise the love and grace of God. Those who are lost reveal the perfect justice of God. Hence both the saved and the lost have significance because their lives glorify God. What this solution may gain in one direction, it loses in another. The person who is not a Christian is a tragic case, and it is always hard to rescue glory for God out of the tragedies of life.

Barth approaches the meaningfulness of the non-Christian person from another direction. Barth believes that Christ was the Last or Second Adam. As such, in his saving work he is the substitute for every single human being who has ever lived, is now alive or will yet live. Christ died for all; he was buried for all; he arose as Victor for all. All people are de jure (“on the books of God”) justified. This means that Jesus Christ is related to all people: Europeans, Asians, Africans, Muslims, Animists, Buddhists, Hindus, Atheists. However, this relationship is secret – not obvious but nonetheless real. Jesus Christ is the secret meaning of every human life. Christians have experience salvation and know this relationship. Non-Christians do not know it, but the fact remains unchanged.

Jesus Christ is certainly commendable to every person of good Christian sensibilities. He does try to give meaning to billions of persons who under other premises would live completely meaningless lives. It is in this context that one must weigh Barth’s push toward universalism.

Whether or not his solution is correct it is courageous. He faces an issue that is so staggering that most of us gloss it over to avoid the uncomfortable experience of thinking about it. Maybe such suggestions are the ways Christians soften a truth but resolve nothing. But it is better to feel the problem than not to feel it; and it is more Christian to suffer some periods of intense spiritual agony than to gloss over the problem. Whether Barth has led the church out of this theological thicket remains to be seen from further theological reflection.

Barth cannot help us in the matter of universalism if we expect to find in him a peaceful resolution of the universal love of God and the fate of the human race in that Last Day. His distinction between de facto and de jure may be nothing more than a convenient fiction.

His help for evangelical theology comes from other directions. We can learn more of the comprehensive Lordship of Christ from Barth’s theology. We can become aware to the surprises of grace that might be in store for all of us. But most of all, Barth warns us not to write off in any cavalier way the fate of billions of people who have never heard of Christ or of future billions who never will. Or, to put it another way, if God’s compassion has been opened up to us in our knowledge of Christ, that compassion should reach out to all humanity. Few things are more un-Christian than a juridical, stony response to the problem of the lostness of billions of human beings.

[1] Bolich, G. G. Karl Barth and Evangelicalism, (Downers Grove, Illinois, USA: IVP, 1980).

[2] Bernard Ramm, After Fundamentalism: The Future of Evangelical Theology, (San Francisco, Cal.: Harper & Row, 1983), pp. 165-172.

[3] Karl Barth, The Humanity of God, trans. J. N. Thomas and T. Weiser (Richmond, Va.: John Knox Press, 1960), pp. 61-62

[4] Barth, CD, IV/1, pp. vii, ix.

[5] Footnote of Simon Hattrell:  This work was published in French as Karl Barth, Réalité de l’Homme Nouveau, (Geneva, Labor et Fides, 1964). This comprised the three lectures that Barth gave in 1948 outside Paris at Bièvres on the theme of “The Reality of the New Man” followed by question and answer sessions dealing with the following topics: The New Man in his relation with God and with Jesus Christ; Death and eternal life; Creation, justification and sanctification; The reign of God and the reign of Christ; The Holy Spirit, the Trinity; The Son of Man; The creation is good, despite sin; The origin of evil, of sin; The ‘Risk’ of God; The use of image in theological thought. This was, of course, translated into German and was published as Die Wirklichkeit des Neuen Menschen by EVZ-Verlag, Theologische Studien, Heft 27, in 1949.

[6] Ramm was writing in the early 1980s.