A Critique of J D Bettis, "Is Karl Barth a Universalist?"

The question of universalism in Barth’s theology has been raised directly by J D Bettis in his article, “Is Karl Barth a Universalist?” (Scottish Journal of Theology, Vol. 20, No. 4, December 1967, pp. 423-436). This article requires to be carefully discussed not only for its significance as an interpretation of Barth’s thought but also because it presents a serious misrepresentation of Berkouwer’s criticism of Barth.
Bettis writes, “Modern protestant theology has defined three basic answers to the question of the particularity of election: double predestination, Arminianism and universalism” (p. 423).
By attempting to fit Berkouwer into “this structure of alternatives” (p. 423), he misrepresents completely Berkouwer’s criticism of Barth. According to Bettis, Brunner and Berkouwrer hold that “because Barth fails to accept either Brunner’s Arminianism or Berkouwer's double decree, he must be a universalist” (p. 426). There are two misrepresentations of Berkouwer here.
(a) In Divine Election (DE) (Chapters Six and Seven – “Election and Rejection”, pp. 172-217 and “Election and the Preaching of the gospel”, pp. 218-253), Berkouwer dissociates himself from the idea of the double decree. In The Triumph of Grace in the Theology of Karl Barth (TG), he writes, “I am of the opinion that … one can judge soundly of the scriptural doctrine of election only when one rejects this symmetry (i.e. the ‘equal ultimacy’ of election and reprobation)” which he describes as “an unbiblical distortion of the message of the Divine election” (p. 391, brackets mine).
(b) Berkouwer never states that Barth is a universalist on the basis that he must be a universalist. He acknowledges that Barth dissociates himself from universalism. He does, however, question the effectiveness of Barth’s rejection of universalism. Berkouwer discusses this question in TG, Chapter X, “The Universality of the Triumph”, pp. 262-296. He acknowledges “Barth’s express rejection of the doctrine of the apokatastasis” (p. 266). It is precisely because Barth is, by his own profession, not a universalist that the discussion of his theology is so important. Bettis asks the question, “Is Katl Barth a Universalist?” In terms of Barth’s own words, this question can be answered with a simple “No”. The subsequent question, “Is Karl Barth’s rejection of universalism convincing?” is the central question.
If Bettis had made the latter question more central, he might have followed through his own critical remarks (p. 433) more fully (more about this later) rather than concentrating chiefly on a defence of Barth, which disposes of his critics by means of misrepresentation. Bettis could not have been so uncritical if he had taken Berkouwer’s critique seriously. This would, however, have required genuine dialogue rather than unfair dismissal!
Bettis contends that “For Barth, one can reject both Arminianism and double predestination without having to accept universalism” (p. 423). This statement might have been written of Berkouwer, whom, it may be argued, rejects this structure of alternatives more convincingly than Barth does. It may also be argued that the precise nature of Berkouwer’s criticism of Barth can only be properly understood when his rejection of this structure of alternatives is recognized.
Berkouwer’s rejection of this structure of alternatives is observable in his book, Faith and Justification, where he writes, “Everything is really said in an unobtrusive phrase, in Christ, … faith is not added as a second, independent ingredient which makes its own contribution to justification in Christ … faith does nothing but accept, or come to rest in the sovereignty of His benefit … we are not acceptable to God because of the worthiness of our faith. Grace is exclusively and totally God’s” (p. 43, emphasis original), “a speculative logic can invade a scriptural proclamation of salvation and torture it beyond recognition … When speculation on time and eternity, with eternity swallowing up the significance of time, determines the line of thought, there is no possibility of doing justice … to justification through faith within the temporal reality of our lives” (p. 150), “Barth’s conception of the relation between election and faith … (bears) a similarity to universalism” (pp. 196-197, emphasis mine) by which he is brought “continually to the precipice (emphasis mine) of apokatastasis (italics original) or universalism” (p. 165).
This raises the question whether “Barth really does justice to the depth of earnestness in the scriptural witness” (p. 165).
It is clear, then, from Faith and Justification as well as Divine Election and The Triumph of Grace in the Theology of Karl Barth that Berkouwer rejects the system of alternatives: Arminianism, the double decree, universalism.
It is, therefore, inaccurate to suggest that Berkouwer accepts a system of alternatives rejected by Barth. Both reject this system of alternatives. The crucial question is: Which rejection of this system of alternatives is the more convincing – Berkouwer’s or Barth’s?
Bettis maintains that “Barth consistently rejects universalism as a doctrine” (p. 427, emphasis mine). The problem with this estimation of Barth’s rejection of universalism is that it does not take sufficient account of Barth’s own words: “Even though theological consistency might seem to lead our thoughts and utterances in this direction (universal reconciliation), we must not arrogate to ourselves that which can be given and received only as a free gift” (Church Dogmatics (CD), Vol. IV, 3, first half, p. 477; cited by Bettis, p. 433, emphasis mine). Barth’s rejection of universalism is not motivated by the interests of theological consistency which, he acknowledges, might seem to lead towards universal reconciliation.
Bettis notes that Barth “leaves open the possibility that within God’s freedom all men may be saved” (p. 427). Barth holds that, because of the freedom of divine love, even the believing man can never escape the threat of eternal rejection (CD, Vol. IV, 3, first half, p. 477, cited by Bettis, p. 433). Thus, Barth’s rejection of universalism is rooted in the idea that the future of all men is uncertain.
This notion involves a conception of God’s freedom which might be characterized as a freedom to be ungracious. Barth’s entire theology appears to proclaim the grace of God. This conception of divine freedom seems to suggest, however, that the affirmation of grace requires to be qualified by the possibility that God might not be gracious.
While the chief direction of Barth’s theology is towards assurance grounded in the revelation of divine grace, it seems that such assurance must be qualified by a recognition of the divine freedom to withhold this grace.
Admittedly, Barth’s intention is to stress that grace is a free gift which no man has any right to expect from God. This principle is, in itself, unassailable. When, however, the universal threat of eternal rejection is set over against the divine reconciliation in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the issue is not one of man’s rights but of the faithfulness of the divine promise of grace to be received through faith in Christ.
The divine reconciliation in Christ strips man of all the rights he supposes himself to have. At the same time, however, this reconciliation provides the believing man with a gracious assurance which is vouched for by God Himself in His divine promise of grace.
This assurance has nothing at all to do with man’s rights and everything to do with the free grace of God which has been pledged to believing man through Christ.
Barth writes, “We should be denying … that evil attempt (the persistent attempt to change the truth into untruth) and our own participation in it, if in relation to ourselves or others or all men, we were to postulate a withdrawal of that threat … No such postulate can be made even though we appeal to the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ … we must not arrogate to ourselves that which can be given and received only as a free gift” (CD, Vol. IV, 3, first half, p. 477; cited by Bettis, p. 433).
Barth’s intention – to emphasize that grace is God’s free gift – is to be appreciated. It should, however, be asked whether he has not set ‘God in Himself’ over against ‘God for us’.
What are we to make of this suggestion that God might yet withdraw His saving grace from those who believe? It rules out the possibility of the assurance of salvation. It also casts aspersions of doubt on the reliability of the divine promise of grace which is received through faith in Christ.
Christian assurance is not a form of presumption which takes God’s grace for granted. Rather, it is an assurance which is rooted in the reliability of God in His gracious self-revelation in Christ.
If this revelation of grace is to be qualified by a concept of divine freedom which can be isolated from God’s self-revelation in history, it can only be done at the expense of introducing both an element of arbitrariness into the doctrine of God and a basic uncertainty into the believer’s knowledge of God.
It may be that the particular form of Barth’s rejection of universalism arises directly from the universalist structure of his theology.
He conceives of God’s dealings with men in universal terms. God’s dealings are with ‘man’ rather than with the believer and the unbeliever. In criticizing this aspect of Barth’s thought, it is not being denied that there is a “(k)erygmatic universality” (Berkouwer, DE, p. 240). It is, however, to question whether Barth has represented rightly the nature of this universality.
In Barth’s theology, there is no suggestion of a dichotomy between the believer and the unbeliever. The introduction of such a dichotomy into his rejection of universalism would run counter to the whole tenor of his theology. Barth, therefore, insists that universal reconciliation may not be postulated since the threat of eternal rejection hangs over all men because all men are sinners.
Recognizing that Barth’s notion of divine freedom entails the devaluation of the trustworthiness of the salvation of God in Christ, Bettis writes, “Rather than ask whether Barth attributes too much to the work of Christ, the real question is whether Barth attributes enough to Christ’s work. If it is not to remove the threat of permanent rejection for those who believe, what is the purpose of the crucifixion and resurrection?” (p. 433).
Barth’s concept of divine freedom prevents him from giving an adequate answer to this question. For this reason, his rejection of universalism remains quite unconvincing.
Since Barth thinks of the election of grace in universal categories, it follows that his rejection of universalism is presented in universal categories. The ontic structure (I intend to say more on this subject in my next post) of Barth’s thinking concerning the universal election of grace lies behind Barth’s rejection of universalism.
Bettis comments, “Barth does not reject universalism because the future of the pagan is uncertain. He rejects universalism because the future of all men is uncertain” (p. 433).
Since Barth thinks of ‘man’ and his relation to the divine gracious election in universal categories, he cannot, without undermining the whole structure of his theology, posit a withdrawal of grace from some men (i.e. unbelievers) only, for this would be to make man’s faith (or unbelief) decisive in a way that Barth has consistently refused to do (In TG, p.113, Berkouwer describes Barth’s view thus: “The divine decision … can … not be undone by any human decision”).
If the freedom of God is to be used as a basis for rejecting universalism, it must, in Barth’s view, be a freedom to withhold grace not only from some men but from all men.
Barth states that both the idea of universal reconciliation and the idea of the damnation of all men are “formal conclusions without substantial content” (Die Kirchliche Dogmatik, Vol.II, 2, p. 461; cited by Berkouwer in TG, p. 117). It must, however, be pointed out that even the suggestion of the possibility of the damnation of all men has drastic consequences for the understanding of the faithfulness of the God of revelation and the unity of His redemptive work.
A rejection of universalism on this basis does not represent a defence of free grace. It is the introduction of a rather formless freedom which relativizes the divine faithfulness.
If universalism and this type of rejection of universalism are adjudged to be unsatisfactory, there needs to be further reflection concerning the meaning of kerygmatic universality (more about this in the final post in this series).
Bettis insists that “Barth’s rejection of universalism is consistent with his … strong and clear intention of refusing to identify the love of God with a cosmic plan of redemption and with refusing to identify the gospel with information about that plan” (pp. 435-436, accompanied by footnote (n. 1) to CD, Vol. II, 2, pp.76-93).
Before looking more closely at this statement, it should be pointed out that it might have been made of Berkouwer who writes, “it is extremely dangerous to think and talk about ‘the love of God’ and what ‘follows’ from it outside of the gospel” (The Return of Christ (RC), p. 422). He insists that “the tender mercy of God … is not the point of departure for logical conclusions on our part” (RC, p. 423). He resists “the persistent and almost irresistible inclination to go outside the proclamation of the gospel to find a deeper gnosis, whether in the form of certain knowledge or only as a surmise”, insisting that there is “only one ‘necessity’ … ‘Necessity … is laid upon me. Woe to me, if I do not preach the gospel!’ (1 Cor. 9:16)” (RC, p. 423). He stresses that the Gospel’s answer to the question of the number of the saved is found in Jesus’ words: “Strive to enter by the narrow door” (p. 423; I intend to say more about this in another post – though this will be not be part of the present series on Barth).
Bettis rightly points out that Barth’s rejection of universalism is consistent with his clear intention of refusing to identify the Gospel with a cosmic plan of redemption and the Gospel with information about that plan.
He might, however, have raised the more important question of whether either of these motifs is consistent with other aspects of Barth’s thought.
Bettis writes, “Barth rejects universalism because the premise of its argument is that God’s love is good because it saves men” (p. 436).
A universalist might, however, argue, with some justification, that this represents a reversal of the universalist argument. A universalist might contend that the effect (“it saves men”) is grounded in the cause (“God’s love is good”) and is not seen as the factor which determines his view of God’s love. A universalist might even state that Barth has been a formative influence on his doctrine of God!
Bettis contrasts universalism with Barth’s view. Universalism is concerned with an “ontological reorganisation of the universe” concerning which men are to be informed. “Barth knows that men are not justified by knowledge, even knowledge of God’s plan for their lives. Men are justified through faith” (p. 436).
There appears to be a selectivity in Bettis’ analysis which leads to a failure to acknowledge adequately the tension in Barth’s doctrine of salvation.
Barth speaks of the “eternal destruction” of those who do not believe that they are God’s children from eternity” (CD, Vol. I. 2, p. 238). On what basis are those who are God’s children from eternity to be committed to eternal destruction? Is it on the basis of a lack of a “(s)subjective revelation” which, in Barth’s view, is “not the addition of a second revelation to objective revelation” (p. 238)? Is it on the basis of the raising and answering of the question of our destiny at a different point from the Son of God’s assumption of humanity (p. 238)? Barth answers both questions in the negative. Barth holds that “the truth” (p. 238; i.e. the objective truth) is that he is a child of God from eternity (“’in Christ’ … reconciled … elect … called … justified … sanctified”, p. 240) even when he is “not in the truth” (p. 238; i.e. subjectively).
It is questionable whether Barth has understood the relationship between salvation and judgment in a Biblical way. It might also be asked whether Barth’s belief in the reality of eternal destruction might not have led him to think and to speak differently of the relationship between objectivity and subjectivity.
In his article, "Is Karl Barth a Universalist?", Bettis has not shown any awareness of the kind of theological perspective on grace and faith offered to us by Berkouwer. The lack of real understanding of Berkouwer's view is highlighted in Bettis' statement that Brunner and Berkouwer hold that “because Barth fails to accept either Brunner’s Arminianism or Berkouwer's double decree, he must be a universalist.” In view of all that Berkouwer has written in his book, "Divine Election", I wonder where Bettis gets the idea that Berkouwer thinks in terms of a "double decree."
Another point of interest here concerns Bettis' interpretation of Brunner. I'm less familiar with Brunner's work. I do, however, remember that,in his book, "Our Faith", he was critical of the double decree. He did speak of election in a way that was a bit different from Berkouwer. I recall Brunner speaking of people being invited to accept or reject their "election." Berkouwer, on the other hand, emphasizes that it is only out of the experience of divine grace that we can speak of divine election. This is an important distinction. What Berkouwer is saying about election is not the same as saying that you can accept or reject your election.
He insists that a proper understanding of theological language is only attainable within the context of an encounter with the divine object of faith. He holds that a proper understanding of theological language involves the recognition of the inexpressible character of the divine object of faith which the believer encounters in the obedience of faith. The gift of God’s grace in Christ is an “inexpressible gift” (2 Corinthians 9:15, RSV). When the believer seeks to express his gratitude to God for this inexpressible gift, he finds it quite impossible to give adequate expression to this gratitude, which he feels so deeply. He is almost certain to use language which, at best, will contain certain ambiguities and, at worst, misleading impressions if his language is not recognized as a groping after a form of expression that is worthy of a virtually inexpressible Reality.
While I cannot pass any detailed comment on Brunner's critique of Barth, I should point out that Berkouwer never stated that "Barth must be a universalist." He did, however,ask the question, "How convincing is Barth's rejection of universalism?" While Bettis is not entirely uncritical of Barth, I think that Berkouwer's book, "The Triumph of Grace in the Theology of Karl Barth", is a much deeper analysis of Barth's theology. The moment Bettis makes any criticism of Barth, we must ask him, "Where are you taking us?" As I recall, he is neither taking us in the direction of any of the "three basic answers" - double predestination, Arminianism and universalism" nor is he offering any other option which enables us to get beyond the "three basic answers." Bettis has given us an article on Karl Barth. He has unfairly dismissed Berkouwer. we are left wondering, "Where exactly does Bettis himself stand on these matters." I think that, in fairness to Berkouwer, there is much more of a positive statement of his own view of election than we get from Bettis. In Berkouwer's book, "A Half Century of Theology", the chapter on "The Heart of the Church" provides a very helpful discussion of the doctrine of divine election. In my book on Berkouwer, I have commented on this chapter. My comments were set within the context of a discussion of Berkouwer's approach to apologetics. Emphasizing the apologetic value of Berkouwer's doctrine of election, these are the points that I made:
(i) He discerns the harmful effects of a deterministic doctrine of election.
(ii) He acknowledges that the deterministic interpretation of election has, for many, proved to be an obstacle to faith.
(iii) He affirms the primacy of divine revelation over human reason.
(iv) He refuses to be content with "the construction pf defensive syntheses."
(v) He has thought seriously about difficult theological concepts and biblical passages.
(vi) Through honest questioning, he has reached a positive position.
(vii) His position could provide an aid towards faith for the person drawn to nihilism because of disillusionment with the deterministic notion of divine sovereignty.
I will now return to Berkouwer. I will not be returning to the Bettis article. Since, however, I am building on the discussion of the Bettis article, I am including these comments on Berkouwer as the final part of this post on Barth and universalism.
Berkouwer rejects a priori universalism without losing a proper perspective on the divine freedom. From Berkouwer’s perspective, the possibility of universal reconciliation would be related not to the freedom of God to be ungracious but to the freedom of God to be gracious.
Such a conception of divine freedom would be more consistent with the Gospel as a revelation of grace than Barth’s introduction of the idea of the freedom of God as a qualification placed on a theology which bears an inherently universalist structure.
Barth’s notion of divine freedom raises problems regarding his theology of revelation. The suggestion that believing man stands under the threat of eternal rejection tends to relativize the reality of God’s gracious revelation. The faithfulness of the God of revelation is called in question. Thus, it becomes difficult to distinguish between divine freedom and arbitrariness.
In A Half Century of Theology, pp. 45-49, Berkouwer emphasizes Barth’s “strong opposition to theological arbitrariness” (p. 46). Concerned to draw attention to “the free and gracious gift of God” (p. 49, emphasis original), Barth insists that “(t)here is no way leading from us to grace … (since) (t)hat … would be the worst kind of Pharisaism” (p. 49, emphasis and brackets mine; with reference to though not a direct citation of CD, Vol. IV, 1, p. 617). It is against the arbitrariness of “all false boasting” (p. 48) that Barth emphasizes the freedom of God’s grace
The way in which Barth argues for the freedom of God’s grace is questionable. In challenging Barth’s way of speaking of God’s freedom, I would maintain that an appeal to the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ is precisely the opposite of arrogating to ourselves that which can be given and received only as a free gift. It is a looking away from ourselves to the Saviour. There is no genuine appeal to the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ where there is any thought that salvation can ever be anything other than a free gift.
Barth’s intention, in CD, Vol. IV, 3, first half, p. 477, may be to warn against false boasting. His manner of speaking does, however, open the door to a conception of divine freedom which goes beyond a protest against false boasting.
In Barth’s conception of divine freedom, there appears to be no essential connection between the historical revelation in which God promises salvation to those who believe and the eschatological possibility that this salvation might yet be withheld from those who believe.
If the freedom of God is not to become a formless freedom which conflicts with the affirmation of the gracious character of revelation, it requires to be understood that “the universality of the New Testament … is nowhere made into an objective state of affairs” (Berkouwer, DE, p. 240).
When objectivity and subjectivity are not set in tension with each other, a priori universalism may be rejected without recourse to either an arbitrary avoidance of theological consistency or an arbitrary conception of divine freedom which suggests that God may, in His eschatological judgment, act in a manner that is unfaithful to the promise of grace given in His historical revelation.
The significance of man’s faith is fully recognized when the reality of the divine faithfulness in God’s promise of grace is upheld. The significance of unbelief is emphasized in the face of the warning of the Gospel. Thus, the significance of man can be affirmed over against the universalist devaluation of the seriousness of unbelief and the threatening of faith’s significance by an a-historical conception of divine freedom.
Thus, without any sacrifice of theological consistency, it can be affirmed unambiguously that “Kerygmatic universality does not preclude but include(s) the call to belief and repentance” (Berkouwer, p. 240).
The question arises most pointedly in view of Barth’s affirmation of the reality of eternal destruction (CD, Vol. I, 2, p. 238) whether it is sufficient for Barth, in his preaching of the gospel, to say, “By grace you have been saved! – this is true, even though we may not believe it, may not accept it as valid for ourselves”, even allowing for his words, “and unfortunately in so doing may forego his benefits” (Deliverance to the Captives, p. 40, emphasis original; I will return to the relationship between grace and faith in a later post).
In the broader context of contemporary theology, Berkouwer and Barth have much in common. Both affirm the reality of divine grace. Both affirm the doctrine of divine election. Both affirm the centrality of Christ in this doctrine. Berkouwer welcomes Barth’s emphasis on both God’s sovereignty and God’s love, his emphasis on both divine election and Jesus Christ: “We ….must listen to his warning not to separate God’s sovereignty from His love, and His election from Jesus Christ, for in view of the many dangers and misunderstandings this warning becomes necessary” (DE, p. 161). There are, however, significant differences between Berkouwer and Barth (for more on Berkouwer’s understanding of divine election, see my post, “Loved with Everlasting Love”). In affirming the reality of divine grace, the doctrine of divine election and the centrality of Christ, they have not spoken with a single voice. The voice of Barth has been more dominant than that of Berkouwer. I hope that, by drawing attention to Berkouwer’s theology, my posts will enable his voice to be heard by more people. The more we become aware of his distinctive contribution, the more he will be appreciated as a theologian whose work is to be highly valued.

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