Does Karl Barth’s doctrine of election inevitably lead to a form of universalism?


In 1961 Karl Barth said to a group of Methodist preachers ‘I do not believe in universal salvation, but I do believe in Jesus Christ the universal Saviour,’ which was strikingly similar to something that Pierre Maury said in his 1954 lectures at the World Council of Churches’ Assembly at Evanston (USA). He was speaking principally to pastors on the topic of Predestination.

Toward to end of his lectures he remarked that “ of the greatest joys that the mystery of election in Christ gives to a pastor is that of believing for others. Often, in the face of clear evidence of the hardening of one of our parishioners, or even of our whole congregation or our Church, we are discouraged and lose hope. Then let us remember that God’s mercy is stronger than the strongest resistance, and that it is “in the heavenly places,” which means “far above all rule and authority and power,” that his unspeakable love chooses how it will love and save. There is here, I think, a change in outlook which the doctrine of election authorizes us to make. Let me illustrate this by an example. One day an Indian friend of mine asked me, “Do you believe that Gandhi is saved?” In all good conscience I could only reply, “I do not know if Gandhi is saved. But I know that Jesus Christ is Gandhi’s Savior. And I believe in Jesus Christ.”

Heinz Zahrnt observed in his overview of modern Protestant theology published in English a year after Barth’s death (The Question of God, Protestant Theology in the Twentieth Century. London: Collins, 1969) that “Whenever Barth came to speak of Apokatastasis, he denies it. He skirts it by appealing to the same freedom of God which makes his grace so unlimited. Grace forbids faith to turn the open number of the elect in Jesus Christ into a closed number, on the pattern of the classic doctrine of predestination. But to reckon with the redemption of all men would equally result in a closed number..” (CD II/2:421f.) Zahrnt also picks up on the theme of Michael O’Neil’s essay (The Light of the Gospel:  Election and Proclamation) in the soon to appear 2nd revised and expanded edition of Election, Barth and the French Connection on the relation between election and proclamation:The fundamental openness of the number of the elect has to be reflected in the ‘open situation of proclamation.’ Consequently, Barth answers the charge that he teaches an Apokatastasis by constantly referring to preaching: The Church’s mission is not to define and contemplate the divine choice, but to preach it, thereby perfecting the destination of the elect. Predestination is not an object for inquiry and discursive description, but for faith and personal address: ‘It is meant for you!’ See Zahrnt The Question of God, Protestant Theology in the Twentieth Century, 110.

Ten years after the publication of CD II/2 in 1952, Barth published his Christus und Adam nach Römer 5 (Christ and Adam: Man and Humanity in Romans 5. Translated by T. A. Smail. Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock, 2004), in which he stated that “The very existence of this individual (Christ) is identical with a divine righteous decision which potentially (my emphasis) includes an indefinite multitude of other men so as to be manifest and effective in those who believe in Him in a way that is absolutely decisive…” See Barth, Christ and Adam. 12.  Barth’s use of the adverb potentially reveals a certain caution. He was specifically dealing with verses 12 -21 of Romans 5, in which, as the late great Anglican biblical scholar Leon Morris in his commentary on Romans (Morris, L. The Epistle to the Romans. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988) has clearly pointed out, “There is an objectivity to this section that we should not miss. In verses 1-11 and again in 6: 1-9 the pronoun “we” is constant, but in 5:12-21 there is not one “we”. Paul is concentrating on objective facts, irrespective of our participation.” See Morris, The Epistle to the Romans, 228, (my emphasis.) In a similar vein another esteemed biblical scholar and Professor of Divinity at Durham University, the late Kingsley Barrett concurs in his commentary on Romans (Barrett, C. K. The Epistle to the Romans. London: A & C Black, 1971. See also From First Adam to Last. London: A & C Black, 1962) chapter 5 verse 19, stating that “Adam’s disobedience did not mean that all men necessarily and without consent committed particular acts of sin; it meant that they were born into a race which had separated itself from God. Similarly, Christ’s obedience did not mean that men did nothing but righteous acts, but that in Christ they were related to God as Christ himself was related to his Father.” See Barrett, The Epistle to the Romans, 117 (See also Barrett, From First Adam to Last, 68-119.)

Donald Bloesch, whom one could describe as an appreciative critic of Barth’s Corpus in his Jesus is Victor! Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Salvation. Nashville: Abingdon, 1976, seems to come close to Barth’s position on the scope of salvation:  “In my view the victory of Christ over the powers of darkness benefits all, but it does not liberate all. It makes their liberation and reconciliation viable but not inevitable(my emphasis). See Bloesch, Jesus is Victor! Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Salvation, 123. This is an issue that still haunts the church in our day. However, I find Bernard Ramm’s discussion in his chapter on Barthian Universalism in After Fundamentalism, 165-172, (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1983) particularly pertinent as the church continues to grapple with a biblical doctrine of election. Ramm draws attention to something that he senses is at the heart of Barth’s concern with the “significance of people who are not Christian” He says that what Barth is essentially asking us is “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?” (my emphasis).

The freshly revised translations of Pierre Maury’s works in the second edition of Election, Barth and the French Connection, How Pierre Maury gave a ‘Decisive Impetus’ to Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Election and the interpretative essays that follow, raise many questions, which I believe can help  as well as challenge us today in our great task of preaching and bearing witness to the grace of God revealed in Jesus Christ.

As Barth affirmed: “The doctrine of election is the sum of the Gospel because of all words that can be said or heard it is the best : that God elects man ; that God is for man too the One who loves in freedom….Its function is to bear basic testimony to eternal, free and unchanging grace as the beginning of all the ways and works of God….It is part of the doctrine of God because originally God’s election of man is a predestination not merely of man but of Himself.” (CD II/2, 3).

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