Heads Up Regarding a Forthcoming Post about Karl Barth and Universalism

Almost every time I say to a colleague or friend who is knowledgeable about Karl Barth’s theology that he was a universalist they answer negatively (“Nein!” 🙂

So, about a year ago, I decided to dig into Church Dogmatics again and see what I could come up with. I studied Barth’s doctrine of election some years ago and concluded that it logically leads to universalism even if Barth himself denied that he was a universalist. I knew that four great theological interpreters of Barth all pointed to the same conclusion (Berkouwer, Balthasar, Bloesch and Brunner).

As a result of this most recent investigation into the matter, I have written an article that I will post here soon. I think it resolves the issue once and for all–with clear quotations from fine print in CD.

I do not claim that this article contains anything previously undiscovered or unheard of. However, I do not know of anything in print that covers precisely the same ground (e.g., including Barth’s views regarding free will).

My hope is that you, my dear readers, will disseminate this article (attributing it to me, of course) far and wide so that students of Barth have access to it.

Why, you ask, do I not have it published in a theological journal? Well, to be frank, this is a better way to assure readership. My blog reaches many more people than most theological journals. And people who “google” “Barth” and “univeralism” will see it. Many people will never look into a theological journal.

So was Barth a universalist? The answer is not as simple as it seems. I will give it here soon. Watch for it, please. And tell your friends and relatives and students and pets.

Roger Olson

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  • Chris Bradford

    “…this is a better way to assure readership.”

    I am so encouraged that your readership is substantial. May your influence be expanded greatly, as your posts are cited and linked to. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your uniquely even-handed (but passionate) approach. Looking forward to reading your insights into Barth, for drinking directly from his CD cup is much too stout for me.

    • Andy


  • Dan Johnson Sr.

    Thank you for your unrelenting pursuit.

  • Jurgen Moltmann considers himself post-Barthian and also is an excellent interpreter if Barth said that Barth is not a universalist because that would limit God’s freedom. Moltmann makes strong affirmations in the Coming of God also denies universalism. The ground the hypothetical universalism in the NT’s tension between limited atonement and universalism and indicate that the two biblical doctrines should be held in dialectic so that one should eliminate the other.

    • rogereolson

      So now I’m going to have to write about Moltmann’s universalism. I know he is a universalist because I talked with him about it. He’s a universalist who believes in hell, but for him hell is temporary. He definitely believes eventually hell will be emptied.

  • I posted this on Scot McKnight’s blog a year ago:

    I don’t doubt Barth quipped something like what Alan quotes (“I do not teach it, but I do not not teach it.”) but here are some more quotes that give a fuller account of his position with regard to “apokatastasis” or universalism or whether everyone will be saved.

    “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. We should be denying or disarming that evil attempt and our own participation in it if, in relation to ourselves or others or all men, we were to permit ourselves to postulate a withdrawal of that threat and in this sense to expect or maintain an apokatastasis 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 . . . If we are certainly forbidden to count on this as though we had a claim to it, as though it were not supremely the work of God to which man can have no possible claim, 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 322f., 31)” (Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, IV/3.2, p.477-478).

    See also:
    “If we are to respect the freedom of divine grace, we cannot venture the statement that it must and will finally be coincident with the world of man as such (as in the doctrine of the so-called apokatastasis ). No such right or necessity can legitimately be deduced. Just as the gracious God does not need to elect or call any single man, so He does not need to elect or call all mankind” (Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, II/2, p. 417).

    “The Church will not then preach an apokatastasis , nor will it preach a powerless grace of Jesus Christ or a wickedness of men which is too powerful for it” (Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II/2, p. 477).

    See also:
    McCormack, Bruce L. “So That He May Be Merciful to All: Karl Barth and the Problem of Universalism.” In Karl Barth and American Evangelicalism, edited by Bruce L. McCormack and Clifford B. Anderson, 227-249. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2011.

    • rogereolson

      Uh, how about waiting and reading my post? I am well aware of those quotes, but I have others that provide a counter balance to them.

  • David (NAS) Rogers

    My cats Cosmo, [Ka]Boo[dle] and Louizie (lou-eye-zee) are all excited to read this.

  • E.G.

    Barth, Berkouwer, Balthasar, Bloesch and Brunner.

    Lots of Bs to keep straight…

  • I have had more than one carefully trained theologian, who studied with Barth personally, say that he was asked if he considered himself to be a universalist and the answer he gave was no. I will be interested in what you see and whether or not you will address the point that it appears that he denied it when directly asked. I might be wrong here but those who have reported this were his own students. This is anecdote but it strikes me as important if those who heard it are telling the truth. I have no reason to doubt what they have told me.

  • Ben

    I look forward to this article. I also hope that you include T.F. Torrance in your survey of Barthian interpreters.

  • Steve Rogers

    He was entitled to his opinion whatever it was. People will draw their conclusions about Barth just as they do the Bible. They will interpret him according to presuppositions and preferences based upon what they were taught by mentors and influencers in their own thought development. While I am keenly interested in your thoughts on this matter, and consider Barth’s writings instructive at some level, what Barth thought changes little for me. Since Christians don’t agree upon what Jesus and his apostles taught and believed, I doubt if we’ll settle much even if we agree about Barth.

    • rogereolson

      In the circles I move in, though, what Barth thought matters much to many. And there are still many who insist he wasn’t a universalist. I think they wish he wasn’t (most of them are evangelicals who regard Barth as a sort of guide to being evangelical without being fundamentalist). Unfortunately for them, he was. But fortunately for them, he wasn’t a “liberal” universalist. He believed in hell. So it all depends on context, doesn’t it? In certain contexts what Barth thought matters a lot.

  • What is your favorite theological journal/magazine?

    • rogereolson

      I don’t read very many because there’s nothing new in them. Most of the time when I read them I go “Oh, I read that thirty years ago in…[fill in the blank].” If studying theology and teaching it for thirty-plus years has taught me anything it’s that we (theologians) pretty much just keep reinventing the wheel. Finding something truly new to say is almost impossible.

  • I am thinking that Barth is clearly saying that all humanity have sinned, therefore the wages of sin is death and therefore all are ‘elected’ to die. However, the gift of God is eternal life. And through Christ the elect, its God’s will that non will perish. For its in, through and over Christ, that God reconciles all mankind to himself.. however not all accept God’s election to life… and therefore they by default continue to be amongst those elected to die.

    • rogereolson

      Barth’s view is that none except Jesus are elected to die the death that is the penalty for sin.

  • Jesse Rose