Posts Tagged ‘Karl Barth’

Will all people be ultimately ‘saved’ – restored to God and to goodness and life?

Last post we saw that God’s judgement is one of the major, big-picture ideas or images that run through the whole Scriptures, and give shape to the story of God’s purposes for his world. The gospel can be well-expressed as the story of God’s judgement arriving in the world through his Son, the judged one and the bringer of judgement. The Christian confession ‘Jesus is Lord’ is really saying that Jesus is the judge of the world.

Fundamental to the image of judgement, we saw, is the idea of division. The judge distinguishes between those approved and those shamed. He makes a finding in favour of one, and against the other (Model 1)

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Model 1

This core image of division has been largely lost in Protestant teaching about judgement. And this has directly led to the teaching of universalism which has been so pervasive in Protestant churches over the past century or so.

Our Protestant message of God’s judgement has instead gone something like this: Everyone has sinned and put themselves in the wrong with God. Everyone receives the verdict of guilty, an adverse judgement. There are no two sides in this judgement: everyone is on the same side: the ‘condemned’ side. Or if we imagine two sides, then God is on the other side, standing over against us all (Model 2).

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Model 2

In this Protestant story of judgement (Model 2), the details of what we do ‘down here’ make no difference. Everyone is by definition included in the general condemnation. Thus there is no possibility of division between different people. Not in the judgement.

This revised version of God’s judgement (Model 2) has far-reaching consequences for the whole of our gospel theology. Here are some of the most problematic:

  • It divorces God’s judgement from his saving activity. These become opposites, rather than one and the same thing. God’s judgement becomes an entirely negative thing, which saves no one. Where the early believers could sum their faith up simply with ‘Jesus is Lord’, we Protties feel we have to add ‘Lord – and Saviour‘, because for us they are very different things.
  • God the judge is seen to be against everyone. Literally everyone.
  • The only way of salvation for anyone is by escaping from God’s judgement. Justice becomes a kind of evil, to be escaped at all costs.

These are serious and fundamental distortions. The doctrine of God’s character, the very idea of justice, the Lordship of Jesus: the whole shape of our faith has been badly skewed by this alternative version of judgement which we have adopted.

Those who have been unwilling to accept these distortions have found themselves in a hard place. They have felt forced to reject the traditional teaching. But there have seemed to be few alternatives, and all of them bad.

From a starting point of Model 2 (which is the common heritage of all Protties) how can you avoid the unacceptable consequences outlined above?

a) You could deny the whole judgement thing. A God who judges is a primitive doctrine not appropriate to modern man. God is love and salvation, and therefore he is not judgement. OR

b) You could keep the structure, but subvert the meaning. If Protestants can lump everyone together under the ‘negative’ side of the original bible doctrine of judgement, then why not just reverse the thing, and lump everyone together under the ‘positive’ side, and still call it judgement? Just as defensible, no? So judgement would be defined as a restorative, salvific process, in which all will eventually be healed and reconciled to God.

They’re your main options, and those are the main two ways churches have gone. We evangelicals tend to tar them both with the same brush and call them liberal, missing the differences.

What is common to these two options, is the universality of the result. Either everyone is free from judgement because it doesn’t exist, or else everyone is caught up in the saving judgement of God, and ultimately rescued.

And now we need to step back a bit, take in the bigger picture, and ask, “where did this universal, all-inclusive structure come from?” Why have ‘liberal theologians’ felt constrained to arrive at one ultimate reality that would be the same for everyone? Who taught them this undifferentiated structure of thought?

We did.

Universalism is a Protestant heresy. It came from us. It was born in our ranks.

Liberal universalists were not the ones who rejected the differentiating, distinguishing, dividing core of God’s judging action. We’d already done that for them. The heart of what it means to judge: to save some from others – we Protestants abolished that. The universal structure of thought regarding judgement – that came from us. Liberal Christians simply adapted it to try to lessen the distortions it created. And of course they ended up with equal and opposite distortions to ours. But the traditional Protestant view of God’s judgement – that came first.

In other words, we kind of forced them to it, the liberal universalists. We left them in a place where they could see no alternative, no other stance that was liveable. We made universalism necessary.

If we had stuck with Model 1, above, the doctrine of universal salvation would hardly have been needed. If God’s judgement is essentially between people, if it differentiates – then it doesn’t mean the same outcome for everyone. Not everyone experiences it in the same way. If that is core to your doctrine, universalism is ruled out from the start.

In summary then, what we have really been seeing is when it comes to the doctrine of God’s judgement, both traditional Protestants and liberals are universalist: just on opposite sides of the thing. In a kind of Dark Crystal scenario, both have gone in different directions away from the Scripture teaching about judgement, depicted above in Model 1.

It seems to me that even one as great as Karl Barth has gone wrong here. As far as I understand him, by downplaying the role of the Spirit in applying redemption to individuals, Barth (in Church Dogmatics) minimises the judgement dimension of the gospel – its distinguishing effect on mankind. Barth sees condemnation and acquittal as having been brought together in the cross and resurrection of Jesus, and so allows the structure of his thought about judgement to collapse them together. He makes the cross of Christ produce a fundamental change in the core meaning of God’s justice: it no longer distinguishes between people, as in Model 1. For Barth thinks all mankind experiences both sides of judgement, in Christ.

Barth’s insight that the whole of humanity has been renewed in Christ is sound. Trouble is, he doesn’t allow much room for the ‘opt-in’ nature of the gospel message about Christ. He neglects to emphasise that not everyone joins the new humanity. And at that point, the point where people respond well or badly to the gospel, Paul would say, ‘judgement is happening’ (e.g. Acts 13:46). But Barth plays this division down. He isn’t going for Model 2, but he’s undermined Model 1. Barth ultimately leaves the way open for a new version c) of the universalist position.

Next up: What about Hell?

(continuing on Barth’s Evangelical Theology)

I love this chapter.

Barth begins by admitting that he can’t justify any of the claims he’s made about the importance of this thing, theology.

How does theology come to take and hold the place [we have claimed] – a place which seems to the onlooker to be situated in mid-air?

The science of theology has no outside supports – nothing, that is, outside the story to which it is summoned to bear witness. Nothing outside the incarnate Word, the apostles and the community that learns from them. Theology cannot justify its existence or task by reference to any pre-existing discipline or idea or presupposition. It cannot construct any supports to ground it:

Theology can only do its work… Its work can be well done only when all presuppositions are renounced which would secure it from without or within.

What power or authority, then drives and enlightens theology, and indeed this whole story of God’s revelation?

The real power that is present and active in theology is not to be harnessed or controlled by the theologian for his purposes. For that power is superior to theology and to the community itself. It renders logical foundations unnecessary,

since it is a productive power which replaces all safeguards stemming from other sources.

So, the appearance that theology hovers in mid-air is more than just an appearance! But what if the air in which it hovers is

flowing, fresh, healthy air in contrast to all motionless or stagnant office air [?] And to ‘hover’ in mid-air could also mean to be moved, borne and driven by this flowing air.

In fact, the whole community exists in ‘such free mobility and movement’. And so does the entire story of God’s Word, through Jesus and the apostles, which creates the church.

All this takes place in the realm of that freely moved and moving air, the gentle or stormy wind, the divine spiratio and inspiratio.

This air is the ruach or pneuma spoken of in Scripture. Both words mean moving air. ‘Ghost’ is a bad translation! The characteristic of God’s ruach  or Spirit is ‘freedom’: “Where the Spirit of the Lord is there is freedom.” The Spirit acts in complete freedom or sovereignty, and creates freedom among men.

It is clear that evangelical theology itself can only be pneumatic, spiritual theology.

The Spirit can however depart from theology in two ways, rendering it lifeless:

1. When theology ‘refuses to permit itself to be led by him into all truth’ – through fear of the power, or through prior commitment to another power or ideology.

2. When we imagine we have some control over the Spirit’s actions, to dispense or harness his power like electricity.

All true theology, then, is the outworking of the prayer, ‘Come, Spirit of life!’



This is my favourite chapter of the book. There’s a bit of magic in it, which stands out all the more against the stodgy german style of the rest. Actually, it’s one of the most refreshing things I’ve ever read. I think here Barth manages to express the awe and glory of being involved in theology, and of being the church. It leaves me worshipping.

Two things here are important, I feel. One is Barth’s complete rejection of external presuppositions or foundations for the theological task. What a refreshing change from the foundationalist approach of so many modern systematic theology books! We don’t do this stuff because something outside the faith is allowing us to, or because we believe something else that can justify the whole project. No, we do theology as God’s people summoned to listen, believe and speak by the overwhelming power of the Spirit.  In other words, theology is relational from start to finish. We dispense with the question of justification, we make no apology for our activity, feeling ourselves caught up in the moving wind of something far beyond ourselves, not initiated or controlled by us – content to simply obey the summons! Somehow I feel released just reading it!

The other thing is that in Barth’s account, theology has a direction: it moves towards freedom. Indeed he says that our attempts at theology can be judged by this: do they produce freedom? I love this vision of the goal of theology! It resonates, because I’ve found that as I’ve come to understand better the Scriptural account of God and his ways, I have found myself delivered and released from many imprisoning and paralysing forces that had plagued me. This is one reason why I believe in doing theology – because of the liberation I’ve found it to bring.

How would it be if we assessed all theology be this standard in future: does it bring freedom?

What do you think?

(continuing Barth on the place of theology)

The community (Barth doesn’t like the word ‘church’!) represents the secondary witnesses to the Word, after the apostles. It is the “society of men called to believe in and simultaneously to testify to, the Word in the world.”

But being a true witness is not easy! The believing community faces a challenge: how to speak rightly about the Word it has come to believe in? It faces the questions: “does the community reflect on the Word painstakingly and speak of it in clear concepts?” Can the community also function as secondary witnesses with credibility and integrity? The work to achieve and maintain these things is theological work.

Every believer is called to this work, and especially leaders:

A community that is awake and conscious of its commission and task in the world will of necessity be a theologically interested community.

Theology is also for the community: its job to confront them afresh with the reality of the Word of God. Any theology that is not directed towards the community, is a waste of time.

“Faith seeking understanding” sums up this community activity of seeking to speak truthfully. The community must seek to understand better the things it has believed.

This search will also include past generations of believers in its discussions. Theology will learn carefully from them. But it will not submit to their judgement, but rather re-examine everything in the light of the gospel.

No dogma or article of the creed can simply be taken over untested by theology from ecclesiastical antiquity. Each must be measured…by the Holy Scripture and the Word of God.

Here at The Grit we like this approach to tradition. “Question everything” – I seem to have heard that before somewhere…  But that means listening to everything also. Including tradition. We are so painfully ignorant of what believers were thinking and saying in other ages. C.S. Lewis’s dictum was a good one: for every new book, read two old ones – or something like that. And by ‘old’ he didn’t mean the 1970s!

I also like this emphasis on learning in community and for community. So much of our scholarship is done in academies and for other academics. But in Barth’s view this sort of theology is an irrelevance. Wouldn’t it be great if theology were restored to the church, to be undertaken by the body, with the assistance of pastor-theologian leaders, and for the benefit of the body.

How can we get our people doing theology with us?

Continued HERE

(continued from previous post)

In his 2nd chapter, The Witnesses, Barth considers the biblical writers as witnesses to God’s revelation, culminating in the apostolic witness to Jesus Christ:

their theme was God’s mighty Word spoken in Jesus’ resurrection from the dead which imparted to his life and death power and control over all creatures of all times.

The early church communities then accepted this witness as ‘canonical’:

they were the first to acknowledge this collection as genuine and authoritative testimony to the one Word of God.

But the witnesses were also theologians, doing theology, i.e. they shared “a common concern for human response to the divine Word”.  So as students of theology we can also learn good theological method from them, learn “the method of a human thought and speech as they are oriented to the Word of God.”

But the apostolic witness should always be given a norming or testing role in our theology. Our work is subject to correction by them! Also, theology has no other source material to turn to for the Word of God: only Scripture.

This witness is not uniform but very varied and ‘polyphonic’, reflecting the richness of God himself. The Word of God is not revealed or witnessed to equally in all parts of Scripture. Theology’s primary task is to search the Scriptures for their witness to the Word of God.


Barth in some ways comes across as a very conservative Protestant. Not much time for church traditions of the gospel here: Scripture alone! Theology to submit to Scripture, etc. He of course sees God revealed ultimately in Jesus Christ.

But here is where he makes his contribution. If God is revealed in history and in a man then the book is not the primary revelation. If it were it would detract from the uniqueness of Jesus and his resurrection. To whatever extent the book is revelatory, that revelation is of a second-order or derivative sort. The book is revelatory in the sense that it contains faithful testimony to God’s revelation in Christ.

BUT that testimony is not equally present throughout Scripture. It is much more clearly present in the Gospels than in Esther, for example. Or to put in in Barth’s terms, it is an open question to what extent any given Scripture contains the Word of God.

What Barth has done is to open a gap or distance between Word of God and Scripture. Now before you have a cow and cry ‘liberal!’, he’s not doing that so as to wriggle out of obeying Scriptures he doesn’t like. He sees Scripture as authoritative anyway: just not all in a Word of God, revelation of God way.

What that gap does is allow Barth to take account of the progressive and historical nature of revelation. God revealed himself differently at different times (cf. Hebrews 1:1-2). If you close the gap and identify Scripture with Word of God, it’s pretty difficult to maintain progressive revelation: Genesis and John are then equally Word of God.

The gap also allows Barth to recognise that the witnesses were doing other things besides witness to the Word. They were also doing theology. The human response stuff. Like Paul explaining to churches what it means to trust Jesus in their situation – that sort of stuff.

What the gap between Word of God and Bible prevents him from doing is treating any Scripture as Word of God, as revelatory, apart from the way it witnesses to Christ. In other words it pushes him to an extremely Christo-centric approach to the whole Bible. And that makes him do a lot of work. There is always a big question to be asked of any Scripture: which he calls ‘the question about the Word.’ He can’t just read Genesis and say ‘this is the Word of God’. He has to ask, ‘how and to what extent is this pointing to and revealing the Word of God?’ As Barth puts it,

Just how far [the Word] stands there [in a text] is a fact that demands unceasing discovery, interpretation, and recognition. It demands untiring effort…blood and tears.

Barth’s view of what to do with the Bible is much more active and dynamic than the one I was taught. It’s much less cut and dried, more engaged and demanding. We can just lazily read out the text and say ‘this is the Word of God’ and sit down thinking God’s Word has been announced and heard, whether or not anyone thought about Jesus. Barth can’t do that – he has to start investigating!

I’m not sure if I like this! But one thing I do like: for Barth the Bible doesn’t function as a rival locus of revelation, competing with Jesus Christ. For us in my tradition, it does.

What are the down sides of Barth’s view?

Continued HERE

I’ve just finished reading this, and I have good news. You can just read the first 57 pages! As far as I’m concerned that’s where the gold is. That makes it a beautifully short read.

This book is NOT an abridgement of the content of Barth’s Dogmatics. It is rather a discussion of the business of doing theology. I’m up for that: every Christian (and this is one of Barth’s points) should be into this, as we all do theology (God-talk) in one way or another, well or badly!

The book has four sections: The place of theology, the experience of doing it, threats to it, and finally the work of doing theology. For my money section 1, on the place of theology, was the part worth reading. Perhaps I just didn’t understand the other sections. So I’ll leave those to someone smarter to comment on.

Section 1, the place of theology, has 4 chapters.

In ch.1, The Word, Barth describes the object of all theology, the thing that theology is responding to: God’s active powerful, communicative Word.  Theology is our human response or answer to that Word.

Because the Word of God is heard and answered by theology, it is a modest and at the same time, a free science. Theology is modest because its entire logic can only be a human ana-logy [speaking in return] to that Word.

Barth is very clear that theology is a human business, and so neither authoritative nor final. The Word is authoritative, not our response to it. Theology is instead humble and provisional in its statements.

There are two things, then: the Word of God, which theology must acknowledge and speak, and then theology proper, which is our human response.

The rest of the chapter is devoted to describing the Word. This is brilliant: we get a three page summary of the gospel as Barth sees it. Barth describes the gospel in terms of God’s covenant with man. And this covenant unfolds in human history.

Theology responds to the Word which God has spoken, still speaks and will speak again in the history of Jesus Christ, which fulfils the history of Israel. To reverse the statement, theology responds to that Word spoken in the history of Israel which reaches its culmination in the history of Jesus Christ.

Barth insists that the two phases of this Word in history cannot be separated: Israel and Christ. The tendency to speak of Christ in terms of universal truths only is a distortion. He is historically particular. “In the Christ of Israel this Word has become particular, that is, Jewish flesh.” But also to speak of God’s Word in the history apart from Christ is misleading: “There is no history of Israel in itself and for its own sake… It hastens toward the history of Jesus Christ.”

The gospel, then is first particular (Israel) and only then universal (Christ). It is “the accomplishment of the reconciliation of Israel” and through Israel the world.

Barth’s program for theology then, pushes towards biblical theology. He wants to talk about the Word revealed in the story of salvation history. Nice. Tom Wright’s work, for example, could be seen as following Barth’s program.

One question: how would Barth clarify where ‘confirming and announcing’ the Word stops, and where responding starts. I.e. which part of theology’s talk is relaying the authoritative, divine Word, and which part is responding to it in humility and openness to correction? I think the distinction is important, but how does it work in practice? Because of the difference in status between the two kinds of speech, it matters!

Continued HERE