Friday, April 08, 2011

Karl Barth on the Question of 'Universalism'

If you read my last excerpt from Barth (about the judgement of God carried out on Jesus Christ), likely the question of universalism (or the ultimate scope of salvation) came to mind. Well, about 1500 pages later Barth addressed this, not so much with a dogmatic answer but with a two-sided re-framing of the question:
"A final word is demanded concerning the threat under which the perverted human situation stands .... Can we count upon it or not that this threat will not be finally executed, ... that the sick man and even the sick Christian will not die and be lost rather than be raised and delivered from the dead and live? This question belongs to eschatology, but two delimitations may be apposite in this context.

First, .... To the man who persistently tries to change the truth into untruth God does not owe eternal patience and therefore deliverance any more than He does those provisional manifestations [of His grace]. We should be denying ... that evil attempt and our own participation in it if ... we were to permit ourselves to postulate a withdrawal of that threat and in this sense to expect or maintain anapokatastasis or universal reconciliation as the goal and end of all things.

No such postulate can be made even though we appeal to the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Even though theological consistency might seem to lead our thoughts and utterances most clearly in this direction, we must not arrogate to ourselves that which can be given and received only as a free gift.

Secondly, there is no good reason why we should forbid ourselves, or be forbidden, openness to the possibility that in the reality of God and man in Jesus Christ there is contained much more than we might expect and therefore the supremely unexpected withdrawal of that final threat, i.e., that in the truth of this reality there might be contained the super-abundant promise of the final deliverance of all men.

To be more explicit, there is no good reason why we should not be open to this possibility.... [in fact] we are surely commanded the more definitely to hope and pray for it as we may do already on this side of this final possibility, i.e., to hope and pray cautiously and yet distinctly that, in spite of everything which may seem quite conclusively to proclaim the opposite, His compassion should not fail, and that in accordance with His mercy which is 'new every morning' He 'will not cast off for ever' (La. 3:22f., 31)."

(Karl Barth, The Doctrine of Reconciliation 3, 477-478)

On my first read of Barth's theology I thought he was just a master at avoiding the question, but I've come to see that he simply did not want speculations about the future to crowd out what actually had to be said on the basis of Christ's revelation.
"In your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have." (1 Peter 3:15)
Basically I think Barth wants to say that universalism is a reasonable hope in Christ, and while it can't be more than a hope, it can't be deemed unreasonable either.


jonkramer said...

I think you're right - it's not "avoiding the question", but more so trying to take the dialogue to a higher level of discourse. Something we often see Jesus doing in the gospels.

For me, much of the struggle in "all this" has been about finding some peace for my spirit in how things will all work out in the end. And to some extent, the peace comes through finding a healthy theological framework. But to a much larger degree, the peace is coming through a deeper knowing of the One who will be doing the "sorting" in the end.
"Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?"
Because, honestly, at times, I've had just as many fears about heaven as hell. An unending experience of some peoples versions of heaven almost make a person wish for a peaceful annihilation in its place!
So, yeah, I still want to hold the most truthful AND beautiful understanding of future as possible. But for me, a deeper knowing of the One is so important - simply in that there's a trust that's forming that "Yes. All will be well".

Jon Coutts said...

I agree with the 'finding some peace' bit. The tough part is that it is easy to thrust one's presuppositions onto the thing so as to feel better. A flip problem would be ignoring that and just taking the most 'offensive' route just to avoid being 'palatable'. So it comes back to trying to give a good reading, and trusting the One who reveals Himself as Just and Loving in His justice.

The bit about heaven -- oh man, I resonate with that.

bh said...

Barth sacrifices logical consistency to be true to what Scripture says. Does that mean Scripture doesn't make sense? Those whose gospel's primary concern is to find appropriate candidates to fill hell with have difficult reckoning with the universal qualities of Paul's proclamation (Col 1:23). Those who stress God's certain and unlimited grace cannot reckon with Paul saying that people who have outbursts of anger will not inherit the kingdom of God (Gal 5:21).

I believe Barth is trying to walk the uncomfortable road Scripture presents for us on which we have to sacrifice logical consistency for the sake of holding two things together: the hope of God's grace for all men and the freedom of God to choose not to extend that grace to whomever He chooses.

I've found theologians who have a prior commitment to logical consistency have the greatest difficulty with Barth as they are forced to say, "if we accept A), then B) must be true. B usually being Universalism."

The problem with jettisoning logical consistency is that you are a next door neighbour to insanity with no way to ensure where your property ends and your neighbour's begins. Hence our absolute dependency on the Holy Spirit.