Berkouwer and Barth on Universalism

Barth has tried to affirm universal election without moving from there to universal salvation. There have been different reactions to his theology.


(a) Some have written positively about this approach - affirming universal election without embracing universal salvation.
(b) Others have moved on from universal election to universal salvation.
(c) Berkouwer has protested against both universal election and universal salvation.
Here are a couple of comments from Berkouwer, which relate to Barth's doctrine of election.
Barth’s view is described thus by Berkouwer: “”Man’s being, man’s nature, is to stand in grace, God’s grace; this is the truth we discern in the election of the man Jesus Immanuel (God with us) … his essence is to be an object of God’s grace. This essence is indeed covered and hidden by sin, but how can something which has its basis in God’s grace be wholly destroyed? There is and remains a ‘continuum, an essence unchanged and unchangeable by sin’” (Man, p. 91, citing Kirchliche Dogmatik (KD), Vol. III, 2, pp.43-50, 54-55 as a general reference).
For Barth, God’s “Yes” is the all-important decision (Berkouwer, The Triumph of Grace in the Theology of Karl Barth (TG), pp. 30. 33). God’s gracious affirmation of sinful man is precisely the content of the doctrine of election. This understanding of election leads him to adopt the highly speculative concept of the ontological impossibility of unbelief (Berkouwer, TG, p. 266, citing Kirchliche Dogmatik (KD), Vol. IV, 1, p. 835).
2. 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?"
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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).
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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 our questioning of the idea of universal salvation to think of election differently from Barth.
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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.
3. When we speak of "election", we speak as those who have come to know God our Father through His Son, our Saviour, Jesus Christ. We do not think, without any reference to the experience of God's salvation through faith in Christ, in terms of either "all are elect" or "some are elect." Drawn by the love of the Father and the power of the Spirit, we come to the Saviour. Having come to the Saviour, we speak of what the Lord has done for us, offering the praise of our hearts to Him. One of the ways in which Scripture praises the God of our salvation is to speak of our being God's "elect." This is a way of praising God, it is a way of looking away from ourselves and saying, "This is the Lord's doing, and it is marvellous in our eyes" (Psalm 118:23). It is a way of saying, "Not to us, Lord ... but to Your Name give glory ... " (Psalm 115:1).
Recognizing the inadequacy of human language, Berkouwer seeks to understand the language of predestination in connection with what he calls the “depth-aspect” of salvation (Divine Election, pp. 113, 150, 168). He emphasizes that “the depth-aspect of salvation … is not a matter of hiddenness which goes beyond the knowledge of faith … not something far distant, not a vague, threatening reality, but the foundation of salvation …” (pp. 113-114; Here, he is discussing Biblical statements concerning “the Book of life”).
With this idea of the depth-aspect of salvation, Berkouwer seeks to understand the idea of ‘before the foundation of the world’ (For a biblical statement which uses this expression, see Ephesians 1:4. This phrase also occurs in John 17:24 and 1 Peter 1:20. In interpreting these passages, it is important that we take into account the context and content of each passage rather than artificially imposing a uniformity of use and meaning.)
He emphasizes that “These words do not occur in Scripture as a threat, but in the decisive depth-aspect of salvation. they are not placed in a context in which they make us dizzy in the face of an unapproachable ‘eternity’, … but they are intended to show us the source of our eternal salvation … ‘Before’ indicates that this divine act of salvation, preached to us by the gospel, is free from what we know in the world to be arbitrary and precarious … in this depth-aspect of God’s salvation it becomes … evident that this salvation did not originate in our flesh and blood, and that it is by no means of human merit or creation. But precisely this fact does not obscure the way; on the contrary, it illumines it. ‘Before the foundation of the world’ means to direct our attention to what can be called the opposite of chance and contingence” (pp. 150-151). Berkouwer also stresses that the depth-aspect of salvation should be recognized in the use of the expression, “God’s good pleasure”, concerning which he writes, “This pleasure does not stand in contrast to the historical gospel” (p. 151). In his article on “G. C. Berkouwer” in Creative Minds in Contemporary Theology, (edited by P. E. Hughes), L. B. Smedes writes, “The ‘good pleasure of God’ according to which we are chosen in Christ is sometimes taken to mean that God simply does anything that He arbitrarily decides, whereas the ‘good pleasure of God’ is His gracious purpose to save: Christ is the revelation of His ‘good pleasure’” (p.77, n. 32). The idea of God’s good pleasure occurs in the Authorized Version’s rendering of Ephesians 1:5, 9. The idea of God’s good pleasure is also found in Philippians 2:13 (Authorized Version and Revised Standard Version) and 2 Thessalonians 1:11 (Authorized Version). In these latter passages, the theme is sanctification and there is no suggestion of arbitrariness at all.)
Berkouwer’s basic understanding of the depth-aspect is defined thus: “When we speak of the depth-aspect, we mean that eternity does not stand in contrast with what in time becomes historical reality, but rather that the salvation accomplished by Christ’s death of reconciliation cannot be merely historical, but that it has its eternal foundation in the love of God” (p. 168).
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In any attempt to understand the nature of divine grace, five important observations require to be made.
(1) Man only knows of grace through revelation.
(2) Divine revelation comes to man in the form of human language.
(3) The inadequacy of human language as a vehicle of divine revelation demands that due care be taken in the interpretation of Scripture.
(4) The idea of an open concept indicates a depth-dimension which points beyond the limitations of human language to profound spiritual realities.
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Berkouwer's concept of the depth-aspect of salvation may be viewed as a serious attempt to understand the complex problem of the relation of human language to divine revelation. It should be noted that he does not advocate a 'spiritualism' which devalues the words of Scripture (Holy Scripture, pp. 57-59, 288-290). Berkouwer's idea of the depth-aspect of salvation is not a denial of what Scripture says. Rather, it is an interpretation of what Scripture says, an attempt to understand what a particular passage teaches in relation to the "entire Biblical message" (Divine Election, p. 18). The recognition of a depth-aspect of salvation does not involve a denial of Biblical authority. Rather, we are asking the question, "Is this really what the Bible is teaching?" In asking this question, we make a clear distinction between Scripture itself and theological interpretations of Scripture.
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Berkouwer recognized that Barth himself held back from explicitly teaching universal salvation.This did not prevent Berkouwer from offering a penetrating critique of Barth's theology. Berkouwer is appealing to others, who may, through the influence of Barth's writings, be drawn towards universal salvation. He is really saying, "Let's closely look closely at the basis on which Barth builds his theology - universal election." He is really saying that, if we follow Barth on the doctrine of election, we may find ourselves drawn towards universal salvation, regardless of the fact that Barth said that he was not prepared to go there (even though he did recognize that theological consistency seemed to be leading him in that direction). Berkouwer's work may be seen as a warning against a universalist ethos, which, even if it is not always made explicit, would strip the preaching of the Gospel of any real sense of urgency.

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