George Hunsinger – the objective and subjective poles of salvation with reference to Karl Barth & TF Torrance


In an interview conducted by Grace Communion International some time ago ( George Hunsinger (Hazel Thompson McCord Professor of Systematic Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary) was asked about something he said in his classic text on Barth How to Read Karl Barth: The Shape of His Theology, Oxford University Press, 1991, p.106:  “Two points above all seemed essential to Barth about salvation. First, what took place in Jesus Christ for our sal­vation avails for all. Second, no one actively participates in him, and there­fore in his righteousness, apart from faith.”

J. Michael Feazell asked: Could you elaborate on that?

George replied (my emphases in bold):

That’s a very deep aspect of how Karl Barth understands salvation. It’s a little simple, but it makes the point…sometimes a distinction is made between the objective pole of salvation and the subjective pole. So the first part of the statement that you read has to do with the objective pole—what God has done for us in Christ apart from us before we know about it, before we receive it, before we make any response to it.

Here, Barth started with the central conviction of the Reformation based on Christ alone and the significance of Christ alone as the exclusive Savior of the human race. He started from there and tried to think it through in a way that had little precedence in the West. In some degree he ended up thinking himself into the Eastern Orthodox and Greek wing of the church. So (and Torrance has written about this) in many ways, Barth is closer to Athanasius, a great figure in the history of the [Eastern] church, than he is to Augustine, who was formative for the Latin West.

It’s not as uncommon in the Eastern Orthodox traditions to give more centrality to the idea of the universal significance of Christ’s saving work—especially in its objective pole so that…when the New Testament says all, A-L-L, which it does quite a lot, that shouldn’t be marginalised. That has an important place in our understanding of Christ and his saving significance.

But in the West, Augustine started from the bottom up and thought about whether we love God more than ourselves or ourselves more than God. The self-love and love for God were seen as competing with one another, and apart from conversion to Christ, self-love trumps everything and therefore you have the two loves, the two cities. The city of God is composed of people who order their loves properly by subjecting self-love to the control of love for God, if not eliminating self-love completely in its selfish forms. You have the city of God, and you have the earthly city. Augustine, in this bottom-up approach, thought it back into the reality of God. The two loves and the two cities had their eternal foundation in God’s eternal predestination of the human race. So this division is thought to be ultimate—it has the last word.

It’s not how Athanasius thought about these things. If you go to the great St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome, it’s a huge structure. They have markers showing where other cathedrals would fit in. You know, Cologne and so on would end here. It’s filled with magnificent art. Way toward the front, there are huge statues of four figures of importance to the whole church, and even to the Roman Catholic Church. On the one hand it’s Augustine and Ambrose. They’re all bishops – Ambrose was important in bringing Augustine to the faith, and Augustine is more the theologian and Ambrose is more the administrative Bishop of Milan.

Then they have two Greek-speaking theologians. One of them is Chrysostom, which means he was a golden-tongued orator, and the fourth statue is Athanasius. If you flee from Augustine to Athanasius, it’s not like fleeing from the clutches of the bear into the jaws of the lion—you’re going from one great world historical theologian to another.

Athanasius, and the Greeks in general back in the 3rd, 4th, 5th centuries, thought about these matters not so much in a bottom-up way as in a top-down way. Athanasius thought about election beginning with the Trinity and the Incarnation. When you do that, you don’t have to marginalise the passages that say that Christ died for all. Second Corinthians 5:14 was a seminal verse for Athanasius, and then later for Karl Barth and Tom Torrance. It says, “One has died for all. Therefore, all have died.” It goes on that “those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who for their sake died and was raised.”

That first part, that one has died for all, therefore all have died. That’s interesting because it doesn’t follow. It’s a non-sequitur. It’s not logically the case that just because one died for all, all died. That’s what the death of Christ means according to Paul in that important passage of 2 Corinthians 5. I’ve looked this up—it’s the same verb tense both times—died is aorist in the Greek, which means a completed event. I thought it would be in the perfect tense, which has some kind of ongoing consequences, but it’s the stronger sense. One died for all, therefore all died.

Even though it’s aorist both times, the death of all can’t be exactly the same as the death of the one. But somehow the all are included, not just potentially. This is how Barth read it, this is how Athanasius read it. It’s not potentially that all died, or that it’s sufficient for all but efficacious only for those who respond in faith. No. In some mysterious way, all are included in the death of Christ. That’s the objective pole of salvation.

It means that if someone comes to faith, it’s not a transition from being an outsider to being an insider. We’re all insiders, whether we know it or not. Christians are those who are brought to the point of awakening, of realising that Christ has already accepted them, has already embraced them, that they may have been resisting their salvation. They may have been resisting their election, but their decision of coming to faith or their being awakened to faith, however that happens, doesn’t bring about the transition from being an outsider to being an insider. That has been accomplished by the grace of God apart from us.

That’s the objective pole of salvation, that has this strong universalistic element. But it’s not fulfilled. It doesn’t reach its goal until each person comes to acknowledge and recognise Jesus Christ for who he is. The way Barth thought this through…is something like that story many of us have heard about the pair of footprints on the beach: at first there are two pairs of footprints and then there was only one pair, and then there are two pairs, and where there are only one pair of footprints, that was the most difficult period in my life, and where were you while I was alone? Christ was absent somehow, and the Lord says, “That’s when I was carrying you.”

The Lord is somehow, in an incognito way, carrying all of us whether we know it or not. There comes that point at the end of all things when who Christ has been for us is disclosed to each one. No one, whether before Christ or after Christ, as Barth understood it, isn’t included in the grace of God and the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to whom Christ is not present in mysterious and imperceptible ways that will only be made fully known at the end.

But on the subjective side, it’s essential that Christ be acknowledged as Lord for who he is. We have the great verse, for example, in the hymn in Philippians 2, that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow. Again, it’s an “all” passage—every knee whether in heaven or on earth or under the earth. I don’t quite know what those distinctions are about, heaven or earth and under the earth. It’s not crystal clear how to interpret that, but it’s perhaps hopefully that even under the earth, Jesus is acknowledged for who he is.

If there’s a difference between faith and sight, that final transition from faith to sight, there’s also a transition from lack of faith to sight for those who don’t come to know Christ and acknowledge him and love him and serve him in this life. At some point, everyone will see him and know him for who he is. His identity will no longer be hidden—he’ll be revealed in glory. That’s at the end. But here and now, some are called to faith and called to be Christ’s witnesses, called to be Christ’s servants, called to be the people who know and proclaim him through word and deed here and now. That’s the subjective side, and that’s what Barth is getting at in that passage.

This is not exactly what Athanasius would have said, but the longest single quotation from any theologian in the Church Dogmatics, which is a 10,000 page argument, is from Athanasius. Barth wrote large-print sections and then he wrote fine-print sections where he went into historical matters, like long footnotes or digressions, so they’re little essays on their own. In a fine-print section, when he’s talking about election and taking this Trini­tarian, Christocentric, top-down approach, he goes into a long quotation from Athanasius. It’s the longest quotation from any single author, another theologian, in Barth’s Church Dogmatics, and it’s on this point.

I think what Barth discovered there was that Athanasius anticipated what he wanted to say and Barth took himself 150 pages to do it whereas this is about 3 pages in Athanasius. Athanasius’s view is Barth’s view in a nutshell. But in the West we are conditioned to think that the Augustinian way of reading the New Testament on these matters is the only way.

There’s a rule of biblical interpretation that says that the clear passages should interpret the obscure passages, or the less-clear passages. That’s great, that’s a good rule, but it presupposes that you know what the clear passages are and what the obscure passages are. Augustine decided that Matthew 25 was the clear passage. It had the separation of the sheep and the goats. He made that the controlling idea for anything else, and that’s why the “all” passages got marginalised in Western biblical interpretation.

Whereas you might think the statement “one has died for all” is clear, but in the West, and this is true of the Reformed tradition also, Calvin and Luther included, it was thought that these “all” passages always had to be read with some kind of mental reservation because the clear passages told us that “all” was not true or it might be too good to be true.

Because of the emphasis on the universal efficacy of Christ’s saving death in the theology of Karl Barth, people have thought he’s a universalist. He’s preaching universal salvation, and if you’re a universalist, what does it matter if you come to faith—as if the only reason to come to faith is to save your own skin, there’s a kind of the self-serving reason… “you need to turn to Christ to escape some sort of terrible outcome,” which is not the best way of preaching the gospel, but it’s the Western tradition.

One of the wisest things I ever heard said about Karl Barth’s theology…and he’s known for representing what’s called dialectical theology, which means that you create tensions and you don’t resolve them. Somebody once said, “It’s amazing how many wheels within wheels Barth’s dialectical engine can keep spinning.” So you might read him up to a certain point and then stop and say okay, he’s a universalist. But no, there’s a wheel within a wheel there. The dialectical engine goes on.

Almost all mistakes in interpreting Barth’s theology, of which there are many, come down to not thinking dialectically enough with him and not seeing how he doesn’t always stop and say, okay, there’s a tension here and now I’m going to develop one side of it. No. He just develops one side of it and it might not be for several hundred pages later that you get the wheel within the wheel. It takes a long time to get the overall sweep of it.

Barth takes a position that I call reverent agnosticism. That is, he leaves the question open in hope. He doesn’t give up hope for anyone. He thinks we don’t have to give up hope for anyone. Think of all the anguish that devout Christians have gone through if a loved one or a parent or a child or someone close to them dies without coming to faith in Christ. It means the only alternative is that they are lost eternally. They’re in eternal damnation, eternally cut off from the love and joy of God.

Barth says, “We’re human beings, we’re not God. We have to leave the outcome to God.” He leaves the question open in hope. So if the option is not all are saved (the Augustinian option), or all are saved (which goes back to the theologian Origen and some others in the East, Gregory of Nyssa and so on, although it’s not the standard Eastern view. They don’t embrace universalism outright either, but it’s more prominent in some of the historical sources in the East than in the West). Barth rejects that forced alternative. He won’t say all are saved, he won’t say not all are saved. All are saved in some sense, but how that will work out he leaves open.

There’s a wonderful line at one point where he’s talking about that sort of last judgement that each of us will face. We must all appear before the judgement seat of Christ. It’s like that ultimate interview situation, where you’re confronted with Christ and you find out about the footprints in the sand and so on. Barth says, “Perhaps the Holy Spirit will have a little less trouble with the others than he had with us.”

J. Michael Feazell: How does Torrance build off of those concepts of Barth?

George: Torrance seems to position himself somewhere between Calvin and Barth. He doesn’t go as far in the direction of universal hope as Barth does, but he doesn’t retreat from it either. He feels the tug of the historic Reformed tradition a little more strongly—not a lot, but a little more than Barth did. Barth is fascinated and delighted by the passages in the New Testament which use the word “all.” Barth wants to take those passages seriously.

The biblical literalists as we know them in the U.S. and in the English-speaking world, can’t take the word “all” seriously or literally because of this Augustinian… They know that that’s not true, so wherever it says all it can’t quite mean all. It has to mean all in some qualified sense. Even Aquinas takes that view. Aquinas says that the death of Christ is sufficient for all, but efficacious only for some. It has saving power only for some. That’s the standard distinction. You find that in Calvin, too. Torrance stays a little ambiguous on this point. He doesn’t reject Barth, but he doesn’t depart as much from Calvin and the Latin West as dramatically as Barth did.

I hope you will see where I am going in what follows! Keep going!

I have recently discovered the late James Denney’s commentary on Paul’s Second letter to the Corinthians (available here: . Denney  (1856–1917) was a notable Scottish divine who held the chair of New Testament Language and Literature at the Free Church College in Glasgow, Scotland. His magnum opus The Death of Christ made a huge impression on me in the 1970s through the Bible teaching of the late Stewart Dinnen (also a Scotsman), Principal of the WEC Missionary Training College in Launceston, Tasmania. In The Death of Christ (1911, Hodder) Denney argued for the integrality of the work of Christ in both justification and sanctification, which for him were not mutually exclusive. He would, of course, have been familiar with William Wrede et al and the two salvation discourses, one forensic the other participatory – the two doctrines of reconciliation, a ‘juridical’ and an ‘ethico-mystical’ one. We might come back to this in Barth and Maury in a future post, as it has been magisterially developed by Adam Neder in his Participation in Christ – An Entry into Karl Barth’s Dogmatics, Louisville, Kentucky, Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.

But staying with this theme of the objective and subjective poles of salvation in Barth and Torrance especially as it relates to an understanding of 2 Corinthians 5 and more particularly verse 14 (One died for all, then all died) in Denney’s commentary he confronts what Paul is saying in a way that I find in no other exegete or commentator (my emphases in bold):

The love of Christ, the apostle argues, constrains us, because we thus judge — i.e., because we put a certain interpretation on His death. Apart from this interpretation, the death of Christ has no constraining power. Here we find in St. Paul himself a confirmation of what has been said above about the distinction of fact and theory. It is in virtue of a certain theory of Christ’s death that the fact has its power to constrain the apostle. If it were not susceptible of such an interpretation, if this theory were inapplicable to it, it would cease to constrain. What, then, is the theory? It is that one died for all; ὑπὲρ πάντων means that the interest of all was aimed at and involved in the death of the one. How it was involved in it these words alone do not enable us to say. They do not by themselves show the connection between Christ’s death and the world’s good. But St. Paul draws an immediate inference from them: ‘so then all died.’ In one sense, it is irrelevant and interrupts his argument. He puts it into a hurried parenthesis, and then eagerly resumes what it had suspended. ‘One died for all (so then all died), and died for all that they who live should no longer live to themselves, but to Him who died for them and rose again.’ Yet it is in this immediate inference, that the death of Christ for all involved the death of all — that the missing link is found. It is because Christ’s death has this inclusive character — because, as Athanasius puts it, ‘the death of all was fulfilled in the Lord’s body’ — that His death has in it a power which puts constraint on men to live for Him.[1] I cannot agree with Mr. Lidgett when he says that the words can only be understood in connection with the apostle’s declaration elsewhere, that he has been ‘crucified with Christ. [2] That declaration is a declaration of Christian experience, the fruit of faith; but what the apostle is dealing with here is something antecedent to Christian experience, something by which all such experience is to be generated, and which, therefore, is in no sense identical with it. The problem before us is to discover what it is in the death of Christ which gives it its power to generate such experience, to exercise on human hearts the constraining influence of which the apostle speaks; and this is precisely what we discover in the inferential clause: ‘so then all died. ’ This clause puts as plainly as it can be put the idea that His death was equivalent to the death of all; in other words, it was the death of all men which was died by Him. Were this not so, His death would be nothing to them. It is beside the mark to say, as Mr. Lidgett does, that His death is died by them rather than theirs by Him; the very point of the apostle’s argument may be said to be that in order that they may die His death He must first die theirs. Our dying His death is not, in the New Testament, a thing which we achieve on our own initiative, or out of our own resources; it is the fruit of His dying ours. If it is our death that Christ died on the Cross, there is in the Cross the constraint of an infinite love; but if it is not our death at all if it is not our burden and doom that He has taken to Himself there — then what is it to us? His death can put the constraint of love upon all men, only when it is thus judged that the death of all was died by Him. When the apostle proceeds to state the purpose of Christ’s death for any, that they which live should not henceforth live to themselves, but to Him who died for them and rose again’ — he does it at the psychological and moral level suggested by the words: ‘The love of Christ constrains us’. He who has done so tremendous a thing as to take our death to Himself has established a claim upon our life. We are not in the sphere of mystical union, of dying with Christ and living with Him; but in that of love transcendently shown, and of gratitude profoundly felt.[3] But it will not be easy for any one to be grateful for Christ’s death, especially with a gratitude which will acknowledge that his very life is Christ’s, unless he reads the Cross in the sense that Christ there made the death of all men His own.

In Tom Torrance’s lectures on Atonement (IVP Academic, 2009, p. 182-3) in the chapter on Atonement and Redemption, he is asked a question about the range of redemption “Whom did Christ represent in his incarnation and in his death?”, to which he replied (my emphases):

“ the assertion of the union of the incarnation and atonement, we repudiate the idea that the humanity of Christ was merely instrumental in the hands of God and the idea that the atonement on the cross was a merely forensic transaction, the fulfilment of a legal contract. In the life and death of Christ, there was fulfilled the one covenant of grace which God out of his free grace made with all creation, although in redemptive history that assumed an election of one for all. That is, election and substitution (see Pierre Maury ‘Election and Faith’ in  Election, Barth and the French Connection, 2019, p. 49) combined to be the way in which that covenant was brought to its fulfilment in the midst of fallen humanity. Although it was fulfilled through the particularity of Israel and through the remnant (the church), and at last through the one servant in a unique and utterly vicarious way, it was as such fulfilled for all humanity.

We have to take seriously the teaching of the New Testament that Christ died for all and that he tasted death for every human being (Hebrew 2:9). Thus the ‘many’ of the Son of man giving Himself as ‘a ransom for many’ (Mark 10: 45, Matt 20:28) is interpreted within the New Testament in terms of all [4]. The other New Testament passages which speak of all, such as for example ‘We are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died’ (2 Cor 5:14) have likewise to be taken with full seriousness and not whittled down.”

The argument of ‘sufficiency and efficiency’ is relevant here especially as we think about ‘redemption accomplished and applied’. As Gibson has said in response to those who advocate Hypothetical Universalism “…Christ’s death does not of necessity lead to its being appropriated by everyone” (Jonathan Gibson, ‘The Glorious, Indivisible, Trinitarian Work of God in Christ – Definite Atonement in Paul’s Theology of Salvation’ in From Heaven he came and Sought Her – Definite Atonement in Historical, Biblical, Theological and Pastoral Perspective. eds. David Gibson and Jonathan Gibson (Wheaton, Ill: Crossway, 2013) 345. These are tensions we have to inevitably hold in balance but that does not mean we can or should as TF has said ‘whittle them down‘. Obviously, Paul rejoiced that Christ loved and gave Himself for His church (Ephesians 5:25) but at the same time his ‘magnificent obsession” was the all encompassing love of God in Christ for all humanity (2 Cor 5: 18-19).

In a discussion on moving beyond ‘Particularism’ and ‘Universalism’ in her seminal work Re-imaging Election: Divine Election as Representing God to Others & Others to God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010) 110-112, Suzanne McDonald says that (my emphasis) “While ‘universalism’ and ‘particularism’ are stifling and unhelpfully freighted categories, the question remains unanswered  as to how we are to speak of the biblical contours of election without allowing the language of election to continue to be dominated by them. What is required is an alternative conceptual framework that is able to hold together these polarities and to transcend them.”

[1]De Icarnatione, c. xx section. 5.

[2] J. S. Lidgett, The Spiritual Principle of the Atonement, p. 39.

[3] The way in which theologians in love with the ‘mystical union’ depreciate gratitude must be very astonishing to psychologists. See Juncker, Die Ethik des Ap. Paulus, 161, and Rothe, Dogmatik 2. 1. 223 (a remark on this passage in 2 Corinthians 5.): ohne Ihn und seinen Tod hatten Alle sterben mussen; das Leben das sie leben verdanken sie also ganzlich Ihm, und mussen es deshalb ganz und gar Ihm widmen.

[4] 1 Tim 4:4-6; Titus 2: 11-14. Cf. Calvin’s recognition, with reference to Isaiah 53:12, that the biblical ‘many’ sometimes denotes ‘all’, Commentary on Isaiah, vol. 4, trans. Rev W. Pringle, Eerdmans repr., Grand Rapids, p. 131, “It is evident from other passages and especially from the fifth chapter of the Epistle to the Romans, that ‘many’ sometimes denotes ‘all’”.

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