Karl Barth the Arminian?

Karl Barth the Arminian? November 4, 2012

Okay, that would be a stretch! I’m not claiming that Barth was an Arminian in any classical or historical sense of Arminianism. He was a member, minister and theologian of the Swiss Reformed Church. Much of his theology resonates well with classical Reformed theology. However, in places, he broke decisively with especially “high federal Calvinism” (especially Beza and those who followed him).

I’ve been reading a lot of Barth’s Church Dogmatics lately. I’ve read most of CD before, but for various reasons I’m going back and revisiting portions of it. Whenever I dip into Barth I find some surprises. (I’m tempted to say of Barth and even CD what a medieval bishop of Spain said of Augustine’s works: “Anyone who says he has read all of it is a liar!” When reading the fine print portions of CD it’s so difficult to read all of it. The eyes wander down the page looking for “the main point” and miss so much. It’s kind of like reading the Bible and skimming the “begats” and then claiming you read “the whole Bible.”)

I always find reading Barth and especially CD rewarding which is why I make myself return to it time and again–even when it’s inconvenient and I’d rather be reading something new that I haven’t read before. But, so often, when reading something “new” (in theology) I find myself saying “Oh, Barth said that” or “Barth would reject that.” For me, CD is a kind of baseline in modern theology. It’s not the Bible, of course, but it is by far the best systematic theology ever written. Which is not to say (why do I have to say this?) that I agree with all of it.

It’s always dangerous to cherry pick quotes from Barth to prove a point–about what Barth believed. Here’s why. As soon as you do that, someone else will come at you with “But Barth ALSO said…” which is the opposite of what you quoted or at least the point you were making about Barth’s theology with the quote. Barth wrote so much, even in CD (thirteen huge volumes written over many years!) that you can find almost anything somewhere there.

Recently I was re-reading CD II/2 The Doctrine of God and focusing my attention (or a reason I won’t get into right now) on a very long, fine print excursus (pp. 458-506!) about Judas. The issue at hand is whether Judas was elect or rejected by God. Barth makes some amazing points about that such as that Judas was still counted as one of “The Twelve” even after his betrayal and eventual replacement. Eventually I may write something here about Barth’s view of Judas and his possible salvation in spite of his betrayal of Jesus and suicide.

Toward the end of that excursus about Judas Barth talks about Judas’ representation of all sinful people who reject God. Now, in order to understand the very brief quote I’m going to, you must understand that the consensus of most Barth scholars (in my experience, anyway) is that he did not believe in free will. Some, perhaps most, believe Barth believed God programmed everything that would happen in world history from all eternity. Barth was certainly a strong believer in God’s sovereignty and did play down human free will as unable to resist the will of God (at least to the bitter end).

Here is what Barth says about Judas: “He decisively confirmed that the world of men into which God sent His Son is the kingdom of Satan: the kingdom of misused creaturely freedom; the kingdom of enmity to the will and resistance to the work of its Creator.” (p. 501) Sure, some Calvinists say the same but mean something entirely different from what Arminians mean by it. (This is something Arminians rely on as our theodicy!) But they have to immediately surround it with all kinds of qualifications that kill it with a thousand deaths (e.g., compatibilist free will). I don’t think that’s what Barth does or would do. Given the surrounding context, it seems clear to me that he believed sin and evil and all their consequences stem from creaturely misuse of free will and that God’s will is not being done in and through it.

The excursus in question (about Judas) is contained in a very long section of CD about “The Election of God.” As anyone knows who has studied Barth’s doctrine of election, it’s quite different from the double predestination of high, federal Calvinism. According to Barth (at risk of over simplifying for lack of space and time), Jesus Christ is the “elect and reprobate” (or “elect and rejected”) man and all others are elect in him. He bore the rejection of everyone. (I could cite numerous passages to prove that, but here I am assuming readers have some familiarity with Barth’s doctrine of election, so I’ll just leave it at that.) So, for Barth, there is no dualism of human persons–some elect and some reprobate. There is simply a universality of election.

But what about those who reject the grace of God in Jesus Christ? Is that even possible? On the one hand, Barth says no. Barth says of Judas and every human person that “The possibility of…saying No is taken from him, together with the possibility of again seeking to make Jesus powerless in the face of the superior power of men. … It is man who is now made powerless in face of the overwhelming power of Jesus.” (p. 501) Is that Calvinism or at least inamissable grace (“eternal security”)?

Remember, we’re talking about Judas, the one person who, it would seem, must be reprobate. Barth includes this lengthy excursus about Judas precisely because he is a “test case” of God’s grace and power and human weakness in the face of God’s grace and power. To the bitter end, so it would seem, Judas was an enemy of God. And yet…in this excursus Barth makes absolutely clear that Judas’ betrayal of Jesus and rejection of God’s grace could not possibly nullify his election in Jesus Christ. “The grace of Jesus Christ is too powerful.” (p. 477)

Did/does Judas have free will, then? Or was/is he a puppet in God’s hands, determined for salvation regardless of his own decisions and free actions? On the one hand, Barth says “the concept of election is expressly applied to him.” (p. 504) There can be no doubt that, in these pages of fine print, Barth is saying that Judas, and every other sinner, is elected by God for salvation in Jesus Christ. Yet, in a small but very important statement on pages 504-505 Barth says something rather startling–especially to anyone who thinks Barth is a strict monergist who believed in irresistible grace.

Speaking about those who reject the grace of God in Jesus Christ Barth wrote that “They exist, as described in I Pet. 3:19, like the spirits in prison to whom Christ descended to bring them the kerygma. It is true that they are rejected, spirits in prison, but it is even more true that Christ has entered their prison, that they have become the object of His kerygma, that it is said of them, too: ‘God did not spare his own Son, but delivered him up for us all.’ Whatever their future may be, it will take place under the power of the proclamation of this handing-over, in the situation which is not merely kept open by this proclamation, but is kept open in the wholly disparate relationship of the two powers.” (By “the two powers” Barth meant God’s grace and the human person’s free will.)

There seems to be only one reasonable interpretation of this. Barth was thinking of hell something along the lines of C. S. Lewis’ drab city in The Great Divorce. That is, as a painful refuge where people are allowed to escape the fellowship with God bought for them by Jesus on the cross if they insist. But even there, Barth says, they cannot escape entirely. The gospel will be proclaimed to them there also. In other words, God respects their free will but will never give up on them entirely. They are saved, but God will not force them to enjoy their salvation.

Now some Barth scholars will no doubt jump in here and accuse me of over-literalizing Barth. They will say, and I cannot prove them wrong, that in this passage Barth is not talking about hell, as a literal place, but about the sinners’ temporal, this-worldly, existence in denial of the truth about themselves which is that they belong to God. It doesn’t matter to my point. My point is that implicitly, if not explicitly, Barth was affirming free will. The misuse of free will brought about the fall (whether a literal, historical one or a universal, existential one, it doesn’t matter) which was not God’s will (except his permissive will). Sinners’ continuing misuse of free will may keep them from enjoying the benefits of Christ’s atoning life, death and resurrection. God will not force them to experience and live in their own new being in Jesus Christ.

If this sounds familiar, it’s exactly what (I think) Rob Bell was trying to suggest in Love Wins. We had that discussion months ago. Love wins, Barth says, by saving everyone but (!) allowing people to “opt out” and not experience their salvation. They are objectively saved, but subjectively not saved. Free will makes the difference.

This is precisely what classical Arminianism says. Christ died for all, all are included in God’s salvific will and provision in Jesus Christ, but people are allowed to reject it. Where Barth goes beyond classical Arminianism (and Bell, too, so it seems) is in saying that God’s self-proclamation and proffered opportunity for salvation will continue forever–even for those who stubbornly reject Jesus Christ.

Calling Barth an Arminian is quite a stretch, but I think it is safe to say there is significant common ground. Arminius also, like Barth, began the decrees of God with the election of Jesus Christ. Both (apparently) believed in the possibility of universal salvation because of what Jesus Christ accomplished on the cross. Both believed God gives people the freedom, free choice, to accept or reject that salvation subjectively.

Perhaps a better way of saying it is that, in significant ways, Barth came down more on the side of Arminianism than Calvinism. He affirmed total depravity and unconditional election, but rejected limited atonement and irresistible grace. And his “unconditional election” is of Jesus Christ first and foremost and others, all, secondarily. Arminians say that conditional, individual election is of those who believe. But, structurally, there is great common ground between Barth and classical Arminianism on some crucial issues.

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