Was Karl Barth a Universalist? Roger Olson

From Roger Olson’s blog-published article, the conclusion:

We are coming, then, to the conclusion that the controversy over whether Barth was a universalist or not comes down to a matter of semantics. (Which is not to say it’s unimportant.) Apparently, in spite of some confusing ways of expressing it, Barth believed in at least two distinct senses of being “saved.” One is the objective reconciliation with God extended to all people because of Jesus Christ and his life, death and resurrection. In that sense, because of election and atonement, all are saved. No personal decision of faith is required for it to be ontologically true and real. The other is the subjective fellowship with God enjoyed by those who, through a personal decision of faith, embrace their identity as reconciled persons. Such persons alone are “Christians.” But they alone are not “saved.” At least some, if not all, of those who reject their election and reconciliation, will, in spite of being saved, go to hell, understood either literally as Lewis’ painful refuge after death or figuratively as the lie lived in misery. Even they, however, are “saved” in the objective sense. And, according to Barth, based on the statement quoted earlier, God will continue to proclaim the kerygma to them, apparently with the hope and intention that they will somehow, sometime become saved in both senses.

Our thesis and conclusion agrees almost entirely with one of Barth’s most astute German interpreters Walter Kreck in his magisterial Grundentscheidungen in Karl Barths Dogmatik: Zur Diskussion seines Verständnisses von Offenbarung und Erwählung (roughly translated Basic Decisions in Karl Barth’s Dogmatics: Toward a Discussion of his Understanding of Revelation and Election). There, in the middle of an exposition and discussion of Barth’s doctrine of election, Kreck asked whether it leads to apokatastasis. He concluded that Barth did not want to draw that conclusion, but that it seems logically to follow from Barth’s doctrine of election.[15]On the other hand, Kreck also wrote that Barth rejected “speculating” (about ultimate reconciliation) and attempted to hold to the “open situation of proclamation” (in place of a doctrine of apokatastasis).[16] However, what Barthwanted and what Barth logically implied (as necessary) appear to be two different things.

The main contribution, if it can be called that, of this research project is that Barthwas and was not a universalist. The solution is not sheer paradox, however. He was a universalist in the sense of everyone, all human persons, being reconciled to God, not just as something potential but as something actual from God’s side. He was not a universalist in the sense of believing that everyone, all human persons, will necessarily know and experience that reconciliation automatically, apart from any faith, having fellowship with God now or hereafter. Without doubt, however, he was a hopeful universalist in that second sense of the word.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Stephen W

    That’s pretty much as I see it.

  • Aaron Tiffany

    “Hopeful Universalist.” I remember my Theology of Atonement professor from seminary, Dr. Steve McCormick, referring to himself as a hopeful universalist. We talked quite a bit about Barth in that class and one of the things I remember (I have a bad memory) was him saying, when asked about when he was saved, “I was saved when Christ died on the cross.”

  • Kenton

    Aaron (#2)-

    Wow! I was saved just a couple of days after your professor! ;)

  • Aaron Tiffany

    Ha. Right on, you know what I mean, but the quote is from Barth, not my professor.

  • TJJ

    I find that those scholars, esppecially scholars, for whom precision is a way of life, when they write or speak in an unclear, ambiuous, almost doublespeak kind of way, so as to avoid being pinned down, that such is almost always quite intentional.

  • http://pauldouglaswalker.blogspot.com/ Paul Walker

    Love always hopes…

  • JK

    In my human relationships, my experience is that reconciliation = forgiveness + (apology & repentance). Is it unorthodox to believe that God provides universal forgiveness, and he desires universal reconciliation but that depends on our apology & repentance? Is this the essence of Barth’s seeming doublespeak?

  • http://Www.theparsonspatch.com Mark Stevens

    This is one the best and easily understood descriptions of Barth’s view I’ve read. Many use Barthian terms to describe Barth’s view which is understandable but can leave the average reader confused.

  • Alan K

    Barth once said the following on apokatastasis in a conversation with Eberhard Jungel: “I do not teach it, but I do not not teach it.”


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