Saturday, March 16, 2013

Olson on Karl Barth's Universalism

Roger Olson:
As we discovered in our exegesis of Barth’s excursus about Judas in CD II/2, Barth seemed to believe that God will allow a reconciled sinner to go on living the lie, without the knowledge of his or her reconciliation with God, into hell. Perhaps for Barth “hell” is this lie and the living of it.

Therefore, insofar as “saved” means living in the joy and blessing of fellowship with God, the personal decision of faith is necessary for salvation.

We are coming, then, to the conclusion that the controversy over whether Barth was a universalist or not comes down to a matter of semantics. (Which is not to say it’s unimportant.) Apparently, in spite of some confusing ways of expressing it, Barth believed in at least two distinct senses of being “saved.” One is the objective reconciliation with God extended to all people because of Jesus Christ and his life, death and resurrection. In that sense, because of election and atonement, all are saved. No personal decision of faith is required for it to be ontologically true and real. The other is the subjective fellowship with God enjoyed by those who, through a personal decision of faith, embrace their identity as reconciled persons. Such persons alone are “Christians.” But they alone are not “saved.” At least some, if not all, of those who reject their election and reconciliation, will, in spite of being saved, go to hell, understood either literally as Lewis’ painful refuge after death or figuratively as the lie lived in misery. Even they, however, are “saved” in the objective sense. And, according to Barth, based on the statement quoted earlier, God will continue to proclaim the kerygma to them, apparently with the hope and intention that they will somehow, sometime become saved in both senses.
Our thesis and conclusion agrees almost entirely with one of Barth’s most astute German interpreters Walter Kreck in his magisterial Grundentscheidungen in Karl Barths Dogmatik: Zur Diskussion seines Verst√§ndnisses von Offenbarung und Erw√§hlung (roughly translated Basic Decisions in Karl Barth’s Dogmatics: Toward a Discussion of his Understanding of Revelation and Election). There, in the middle of an exposition and discussion of Barth’s doctrine of election, Kreck asked whether it leads to apokatastasis. He concluded that Barth did not want to draw that conclusion, but that it seems logically to follow from Barth’s doctrine of election.[15] On the other hand, Kreck also wrote that Barth rejected “speculating” (about ultimate reconciliation) and attempted to hold to the “open situation of proclamation” (in place of a doctrine of apokatastasis).[16] However, what Barth wanted and what Barth logically implied (as necessary) appear to be two different things.
The main contribution, if it can be called that, of this research project is that Barth was and was not a universalist. The solution is not sheer paradox, however. He was a universalist in the sense of everyone, all human persons, being reconciled to God, not just as something potential but as something actual from God’s side. He was not a universalist in the sense of believing that everyone, all human persons, will necessarily know and experience that reconciliation automatically, apart from any faith, having fellowship with God now or hereafter. Without doubt, however, he was a hopeful universalist in that second sense of the word.
For the rest, enjoy it here.

--Nick

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