A Mea Culpa, Apology, and Attempt at Explanation (Re: My Barth’s Universalism Post)

Dear Blog Friends and Followers,

A few friends have chided me to making over blown claims for my Barth’s universalism essay and its preceding “head’s up” post.

I apologize for implying (which was not really my intention) that no one had ever expressed my view as well as I did. (I explicitly said my view in the essay was not original, but I implied that it was in some way better than others.)

I apologize to those who were offended by my apparent triumphalism.

Now, please bear with me as I attempt to explain myself.

I knew my general conclusion about Barth and universalism is not original or new. I even quoted a German theologian who came to the same general conclusion.

So why did I write it and publish it here?

First, I am still not aware of a widely accessible and relatively popularly written presentation of the view and argument. Theological journals are not easily accessible to many people.

Second, I was not aware of any presentation that quoted exactly the same quotations from CD I presented.

Third, I still run into very astute Barth scholars who claim Barth was not a universalist and seem closed minded to any other view. So I wrote this to them–to explain to them why I say that Barth was a universalist. (Some of them have treated me like I don’t know what I’m talking about.)

Fourth, while I am certainly not familiar with all the secondary literature on Barth (who is?) I am not aware of any that compare his view of hell with C. S. Lewis’. Those may be out there, I may have read some and forgot them, whatever. But I wanted to point out strong similarities there.

Fifth, a while back I commented on the movement called “evangelical Calvinism.” I wanted to give support to it with often overlooked quotations from Barth.

Finally, this essay arose out of a long-term project of reading CD “with fresh eyes” as independent of secondary literature on the subject as possible. So, after a certain point, I consciously ignored articles and books on the subject in order to focus exclusively (or as much as possible) on what Barth said about the subject in CD without being influenced by contemporary (last couple decades’) commentaries on the subject (viz., Barth’s universalism).

I detect a certain sentiment among students of Barth that one is not really allowed to just read and interpret Barth; one must (!) interact with certain Barth scholars in order to claim to be doing Barth scholarship. I think there is a difference between scholarly reading of Barth and scholarship about contemporary Barth interpretation. But I think those two things are often conflated.

Thanks for listening. Responses are welcome.

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  • James Petticrew

    I think perhaps some people are reading too much into what you said I didn’t see anything triumphalistic

    • rogereolson

      Thanks, James. In my opinion there is a great deal of defensiveness within Barth scholarship. People think either they or their favorite Barth scholar “own” certain views (discoveries, perspectives, etc.) and MUST be given credit for them. For me to claim to have arrived at a view on my own, without “help” from those scholars, and to claim that I have expressed it better than they have (even if only in the sense of making it accessible to more people) is a serious faux pas. American scholarship in particular, I think, is pervaded by this spirit of defensiveness. And, it seems to me, many people are more interested in “Barth scholarship” than in Barth himself.

  • John Thestian

    “I detect a certain sentiment among students of Barth that one is not really allowed to just read and interpret Barth; one must (!) interact with certain Barth scholars in order to claim to be doing Barth scholarship. I think there is a difference between scholarly reading of Barth and scholarship about contemporary Barth interpretation. But I think those two things are often conflated.”

    This claim only makes sense if one has deeply imbibed what may be the worst trait of what I believe you call the “evangelical ethos,” namely, the ridiculous idea that things need to be reinvented from the ground up. The much more rationale approach is to balance engagement with primary sources with engagement with the best secondary sources available (which virtually everyone in the Barth studies guild will recognize, even if some will recognize it only reluctantly, come from folks like Hunsinger and McCormack). Anything else is bound to produce only myopia.

    • rogereolson

      If you mean that I think there is no “magisterium” of Barth scholarship, you’re right.

  • Dr. Olson:

    I have read some of the testy responses to your blog concerning Barth’s theology and found them to be predictable. Most professing evangelicals who hear or read the word “universalist” automatically default to that other pejorative word, “heretic.” If, indeed, Barth was a convinced universalist who believed in the ultimate salvation of all humanity, it should be no mystery why he approached it so delicately in his writings. But, for the unbiased eye, his universalism is so obvious that it cannot be easily dismissed. You are to be commended for recognizing what some others have refused to admit. Thanks for your ‘fair and balanced’ article!

  • John C.Gardner

    There was nothing triumphalistic in your online essay. It clarified for me(one who had heard about this issue but was ignorant concerning the arguments) the discussion about the universalism of Barth. I think this essay was a service to anyone who is interested in theology, salvation and is an evangelical. Thank you for writing it.

    • rogereolson

      You’re welcome and thanks for the support.

  • PJ Anderson

    I thought all of these points were obviously made prior to and within the article. I just get weary of all these trolls digging at stuff all the time. Thanks for helpful (but entirely unneeded) clarification. Your piece on Barth was very good and we are better for having it accessible to all.

  • Bart not orthodox? A Universalist? Next your going to write Footprints In The Sand does not belong in the canon. You challenge all theologians of every stripe – even if it hurts your fair. Thanks.

  • Thank you for continuing to think of us evangelical Calvinists. The way you have drawn out salvation in Barth correlates well with the Scottish soteriological conception (as described by TF Torrance in his book Scottish Theology) of carnal union (the universal objective side … the ontological depth of salvation), and spiritual union (the subjective side), and both of these realities being conditioned, grounded and realized in the humanity of Christ for us. Not all are spiritually united (so a double-double election concept), but all are carnally united by virtue of Christ’s assumption of the only kind of humanity available (so this is where the concepts of enhypostatic and anhypostatic are at play … and this is something that shaped Barth’s understanding as well).

    Myk’s and my flavor is much more Torrancian (Thomas Torrance) rather than Barthian; although TFT was the English speaking Barthian par excellence if there ever was one (prior to the scholarship that has arisen over the last 20 years as you note). So insofar as he imbibes some of the primary contours of Barth’s emphases, I suppose we could be characterized as “Barthian” in a general kind of way. But as I just noted, our conception of election has Scottish rootage that reaches back into the 16th and 17th centuries.

    I think there is definitely a place to go directly to Barth for oneself. I suppose Barth scholars get testy because this might feel like the work they have done is devalued; or they feel a sense of ownership over Barth. But maybe fresh insights from a non-Barth scholar (like yourself) should be received more openly as a prompt for fresh trajectories or avenues of thought that maybe some Barth scholars haven’t considered before. But I can understand their frustration at a level; I would imagine you might feel the same with Arminius as they do with Barth, I don’t know. There is a strange sense of ownership that overcomes scholarship no matter what field someone becomes an “expert” in. Maybe a some “theology of glory” creep is happening ;-); something all theologians need to be wary of.

    Anyway, my comment is mostly to say thank you, again, for still thinking about us Evangelical Calvinists; we aren’t done, we are working towards a second volume :-).

    Keep up the provocative work!

    • rogereolson

      Thanks, Bobby. I am very interested in your (and others’) “evangelical Calvinism” even though I am not well-read in Torrance. I have (probably wrongly) tended to view him as a British Barthian. You and Andrew Purves and others are teaching me to see him as something else. I am intrigued by parallels between Torrance’s Christological soteriology and Irenaeus’ theory or recapitulation. Also Athanasius’s view. In On the Incarnation of the Word Athanasius says blatantly and bluntly that in Christ, because of his incarnation, death and resurrection, “all” are saved. But he goes on to talk about the real danger of hell for many. I didn’t talk about this in my essay on Barth, but as I was doing my research on Barth’s universalism in CD I wondered if there is a line of this particular kind of universalism stemming from (post-NT) Irenaeus through Athanasius through…Maximus the Confessor (?)…on up to Barth, C. S. Lewis, Torrance and others who hold a similar view (von Balthasar?). Of course, each has his or her own spin on it, but I’m beginning to wonder if perhaps Barth himself was simply coming to the same general view some early church fathers held?

      My own take on the reactions to my essay (ie., Barth’s universalism) is that it would be best for Barth scholars who have already come to the same conclusion to say “Look, Roger Olson comes to the same view we did some time ago–independently of us. That’s confirmation that we were right!” Instead, the reaction seems to be that I committed some serious faux pas by not mentioning them. Would I feel the same way if someone independently of me arrived at the same conclusions as I have about Arminius? I don’t think so. It has happened. My attitude is “See, I was right.”

  • JohnD

    May I say that I think Barth is overrated and given too much attention in the scholarly world? Actually, I don’t know that he gets that much attention anymore, but those who are Barthian scholars are heavily invested because they’ve had to spend so dang much time with him. Naturally, they want to justify that expenditure. But I think it’s long past time to give him his historical moment (esp. the Commentary on Romans) but issue a verdict on Church Dogmatics: An overlong, overcomplex argument with himself, which he ultimately lost. His Calvinism was his nemesis. And the idea of wading into those multi-volumes to find this out borders on academic insanity.

    The greatest theologians write to be understood. Barth wrote in a battle within his own mind and ended up muddying too many waters. I think he was a brilliant man but, in the end, a lackluster theologian, for the best write to be understood clearly. (e.g. Adam Clarke, Wm. Burt Pope)

    I know Barth is given some sort of hallowed status among scholars who came of age in the latter half of the 20th century, but I think it’s time to move on.

    • rogereolson

      I do think Barth was brilliant and a courageous reformer. But I agree that some students and scholars get obsessed with him, as if he constitutes a canon outside the canon. I find Brunner much clearer and more correct on many issues (e.g., the image of God and general revelation). But especially among progressive evangelical scholars, Barth is viewed as the path out of fundamentalism without retreating to liberalism. There’s some truth to that, but he’s not the only one. I also think Barth wrote so much and was so obscure that an entire career can be built on interpreting him. But every interpretation will be met with an alternative proposal. I remember when a German Barthian (I think he was German but maybe he was Swiss) came out with a major study of Barth that argued Barth’s main driving motive and motif was socialism. Everybody flocked in that direction–either to agree or disagree–for about a decade. Then it died down. I don’t necessarily agree that it’s time to leave Barth behind, but I think it is time to put Barth in perspective–as just another great mind trying to understand God and Christ (etc.) who is worthy of attention but not worthy of being considered the be-all or end-all of Christian theology. I feel the same way about Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Edwards, et al. People tend to put people like those up on pedestals and expend tremendous energy expounding their own interpretation of them–often by countering someone else’s interpretation. It’s a scholarly game that makes or breaks many theologians’ reputations. And in the process, too often, people give more attention to the various arguments about these theologians than to the theologians themselves. I personally know some people who would not fail to read the latest article by their favorite Barth scholar but have not read CD.

  • Steve Rogers

    Just as in proof texting the scriptures, we put the spotlight on historic thought influencers who tend to support our presuppositions. No one reads the Bible free of any assumptions and no one interprets Barth with pure objectivity. Efforts to make him agree with us are akin to what goes on in the “spin room” after a political debate. What makes Barth such a challenge, as a previous commenter noted, is his own ambiguity. Barth was entitled to his opinions and we are entitled to our opinions about Barth. And in the end, on some things at least, we’ll discover we’ve all been wrong and may wonder if our time might have been better spent doing crossword puzzles.

  • Dr. Olson. You write with a simplicity and humbleness that I always appreciate. And I took your Barth post for the excitement it brought to you in your discoveries. Do not worry that fame has gone to your head because quite frankly it is not in your heart. Keep on keeping on, and thanks for your hard work and excellent PUBLIC posts you make available to people like myself searching for guidance and understanding in a plethora of rhetoric, pulpiteering, and media distortion. Your friend, Russ.

    • rogereolson

      Thanks for your encouragement.

  • Your comments about Iraneus and Athanasius are interesting. Considering that Eastern Orthodox doctrine draws heavily from the early church fathers, it seems there are similar views shared by evangelical Calvinism and EO theology.

  • Don

    I found your argument clear and compelling…the fact that you stepped on some toes…oops! Sorry, but do you agree or disagree and why/not? I appreciate the fact that you wrote for me, someone with some background in theology, but none in Barth. Like you, I would hope that others would respond, “Great! An independent confirmation!”
    Thank you for helping me out.