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Karl Barth and Universalism: Comments from Berkouwer, Brown, Bromiley and Bloesch

By asking us to consider the question, “How convincing is Barth’s rejection of universalism?”, Berkouwer is really calling in question Barth’s understanding of election. He is really asking, “Does Scripture teach this idea of universal election?”
Colin Brown has also been forthright on this point. He suggests that Barth’s reservation with regard to universalism should have taken place not at the point of drawing possible consequences from his theology. It should have taken place at the outset of his Christological approach to theology.He maintains that “the trouble is that all Barth’s theology is made to centre around an idea of Christ. But it is not exactly the biblical idea of Christ” (KB, p. 138). Brown concludes that “it is a Christ-idea that often gives Barth his characteristic emphases” and that this has meant that “Some important aspects of the New Testament teaching had to be stretched to make them fit, while others had to be lopped off” (KB, p. 152. See also p. 12).
Contrasting Barth’s idea of Christ with the Biblical idea of Christ, Brown writes, “Whilst God deals with men through Christ, Christ is not equally all things to all men. To some he is Saviour, to others He is Judge. According to … the New Testament …, God deals with men in two ways … as they are in themselves apart from Christ. And … as they are in Christ. The two spheres are not identical … All men are by nature in the first. Some are by grace in the second” (KB, p. 139).
G W Bromiley is also critical of Barth’s theology. He has summarized Barth’s view thus: “The lie cannot overthrow the truth, but God may finally condemn the liar to live in it” (“Karl Barth”, Creative Minds in Contemporary Theology(CM), edited by P E Hughes, p. 49, citing CD, Vol. IV, 3, Section 70, 2), Bromiley observes, in Barth’s view, “the trend toward an ultimate universalism” while acknowledging that “universalism in the sense of the salvation of all individuals is not a necessary implicate of Barth’s Christological universalism” (CM, p. 54). Bromiley suggests, however, that Barth’s reservation with respect to ultimate universalism is “not really adequate” (CM, p. 54). What Bromiley says here is similar to what Berkouwer has said. He acknowledges that Barth and others after him have attempted to dissociate themselves from universal salvation. The question remains, “How convincing is their rejection of universalism? If we find it unconvincing, we can either (a) go with those who tells us that universal election leads us on to universal salvation; or (b) move back from oour questioning of the idea of universal salvation to think of election differently from Barth.
The view of Donald G. Bloesch is also of interest. Following Barth’s suggestion that ‘Jesus is Victor’ expresses his theological emphasis better than Berkouwer’s title, ‘the triumph of grace’, D G Bloesch, entitled his book on Barth, Jesus is Victor! - Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Salvation. Bloesch, nevertheless, reached similar conclusions to those of Berkouwer. Acknowledging that Barth’s idea of universal election is neither a metaphysical presupposition nor a rational conclusion but an affirmation of faith and hope, which Barth holds, is implied in the Biblical witness, Bloesch argues that Barth has failed to to hold together the objective and subjective poles of salvation and that his logic leads in the direction of universalism.
Since Bloesch’s title takes account of Barth’s reaction to Berkouwer’s title, we should pass comment on Barth’s comments on Berkouwer’s title While seeking to be fair to both Barth and Berkouwer, we may ask whether Barth’s criticism of Berkouwer’s title has really done very much to lessen the force of Berkouwer’s argument - ‘the asking of the apokastasis question (universalism) … is warranted by the simple fact of taking Barth seriously’ ‘Barth’s express rejection of the doctrine of the apokatastasis must be fully taken into account but it is precisely when we do so that the tensions within his teaching become the more visible’ (The Triumph of Grace in the Theology of Karl Barth, 112, 266 - brackets and emphasis mine).
It is precisely because Barth is, by his own profession, not a universalist that the discussion of his theology is so important. The answer to the question, ‘Is Karl Barth a Universalist?’, must, if we take Barth’s own words seriously, be ‘No’. This, however, raises another question, ‘Is Karl Barth’s rejection of universalism convincing?’ This is the central issue raised by Berkouwer. He never states that Barth is a universalist on the basis that he must be a universalist. He acknowedges that Barth dissociates himself from universalism. He does, however, question the effectiveness of Barth’s rejection of universalism ( T of G, Chapter X, ‘The Universality of the Triumph’, 262-296).
Berkouwer commends Barth for his concentration on Jesus Christ. This is what gives Barth’s theology its ‘triumphant and joyful character’ (T of G, 212). While he does not suggest that human sin should be taken more seriously than divine grace, Berkouwer does insist that we need to take great care if we are to understand the precise nature of the relationship between divine grace and human sin. He insists that ‘there can never be a question of too strongly accenting the grace of God’. He emphasizes that ‘the question is, how shall we lay the proper emphases and how can we most purely praise this grace. It is never the full accent but the wrong accent that obscures the gospel of God’s grace’ (T of G 349).
In his critique of Barth’s theology, Berkouwer lays great emphasis on the importance of both grace and faith. His emphasis on faith ensures that his theology does not lean towards the kind of universalism which Barth seeks to avoid. By emphasizing that ‘faith has significance only in its orientation to its object - the grace of God’ (Faith and Justification, 29), he seeks to avoid the kind of theology which draws our attention away from the God of grace.
We may ask, whether Berkouwer - with his great emphasis on our response of faith as well as the initiative of divine grace - leads us away from the sovereignty of God over the whole of reality to a sovereignty of God within the heart of the believer. It may be argued that Berkouwer proclaims the sovereignty of God no less emphatically than Barth. He does, however, offer interpret divine sovereignty differently from Barth.
The sovereignty of God over the whole of reality may be viewed as the demonstration that salvation is salvation in God’s way - by grace through faith. When salvation in God’s way - by grace through faith - is properly understood, there is no suggestion that we are moving away from the sovereignty of God over the whole of reality to a sovereignty of God within the heart of the believer. In God’s way of salvation, we see the sovereignty of God over man. God’s way of salvation - by grace through faith - is vindicated over against man’s attempt at achieving salvation through his own works.
This view of God’s gracious sovereignty maintains that reconciliation is God’s work, accomplished in God’s way. There is no movement in the direction of universal reconciliation. There is no wrong emphasis on faith which leads us to give faith a significance that is independent of divine grace.
The question is not one of human decision versus divine decision. Rather, it concerns the understanding of the truth.
The idea of a single truth concerning mankind seems far removed from the Biblical emphasis on the decisiveness for his eternal destiny of man’s relation to the truth. In one sense, there is a single truth. Jesus Christ is the Truth. The Truth concerning Him is that He is the Way by which men receive Life (John 14:6). This understanding of Truth requires to be carefully distinguished from the idea of a single truth concerning mankind which can be deduced from the affirmation of Christ as the Truth without reference to the presence or absence of faith in a man.

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