Assessing G. C. Berkouwer’s Critique Of Karl Barth’s Refusal to Affirm Universal Salvation

In his book, “The Knowledge of the Holy” (a book on the Attributes of God in the Christian Life), A. W. Tozer spoke about an ocean liner travelling across the Atlantic from Liverpool to New York. The destination has been set for the ship’s journey. The travellers can do as they wish while they are on the ship, but they cannot change the ship’s destination.
Barth’s understanding of election would seem to be that everyone of us is already on the ship. We can, however, jump overboard! The problem with Barth’s refusal to affirm universal salvation (allowing for the possibility of “jumping overboard”) is that it is difficult to make sense of this when Barth is also speaking to us about “the ontological possibility of unbelief” (i.e. nothing changes the fact that we are elect - “the truth is that he is a child of God from eternity even when he is not in the truth” (CD, 1, 2, 238)). My problem with this way of speaking about being a child of God is that it is not what I find in John 1:12-13, where we read about receiving Christ as Saviour and being born of God. This suggests that, prior to receiving Christ as Saviour, we were not born of God. Those who do not receive Christ as Saviour have not been born of God.
Barth was not happy with the idea that we choose to come on board. He emphasized that it is not our decision which determines our eternal destiny.
Barth speaks of ‘the eternal destruction’ of those who do not believe that they are God’s children from eternity (CD Vol I/2, 238).”  We may ask the question, ‘On what basis are those who are God’s children from eternity to be committed to eternal destruction?” Asking the question, “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 (238)”,  we note that Barth answers this question in the negative.
Barth speaks of “the eternal destruction” of those who have been God’s children from eternity. This raises precisely the question which you, Scott, raised in an earlier comment - Is there not a weakening of the idea of election here?
* Barth’s refusal to move from universal election to universal salvation has been received favourably by some. 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” (”Is Karl Barth a Universalist?”, Scottish Journal of Theology, Vol. 20, No. 4, December 1967, pp. 435-436, accompanied by footnote (n. 1) to CD, Vol. II, 2, pp.76-93). Barth’s emphasis on the freedom of God as a way of avoiding universal salvation
raises the question, “What kind of freedom is this?” On the one hand, he is strongly proclaiming the grace of God - all are elect in Christ. On the other hand, God is free to withdraw the gift of salvation. What kind of freedom is this? It seems to me to be a freedom to be ungracious. Barth is concerned that we do not take salvation into our own hands. He says that our salvation is in God’s hands. When, however, he says that we can take ourselves out of God’s salvation, it is difficult to make sense of what he tells us about universal election.
* There are others who are impressed by Barth’s teaching that all are elect in Christ. Unlike Barth, however, they do not hesitate to affirm universal salvation - 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 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, 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!
* Alongside these two views - (a) going with Barth on both his affirmation of universal election and his refusal to commit himself to universal salvation; and (b) moving on from Barth’s universal election to affirm universal salvation, there is Berkouwer’s word of caution. He 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” (Luke 13:24).
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In offering these words of caution, Berkouwer is distancing himself from the idea that all are elect in Christ. He insists that we must not objectify election in an illegitimate manner. He emphasizes that the believer can see himself, by faith, as elect. To separate election from the believer’s confession of faith, arising from his experience of grace, is quite unwarranted. Any theoretical interpretation of election is the result of speculating beyond the believing confession of one’s own election. It should be pointed out that this does not make election subjective. It does, however, recognize that the objectivity of grace is not known apart from our subjective experience.
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There are some who have not begun the journey into eternal life. If they continue on their present pathway, they are not travelling in the direction of the heavenly destination. In one sense, Barth is correct in directing our attention away from our own decision of faith to Jesus Christ, our Saviour. For every one of us, the journey towards the heavenly destination begins with the fact that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15). We must, however, also point out that we are not saved if we refuse to put our faith in Him.
- The time when salvation was provided for us was the time when Christ died for us. When He declared from the Cross, “It is finished” (John 19:30), He was declaring that He had done what needed to be done for sinners to be saved.
- The time when salvation is received by us is the time at which we come, in faith, to the Saviour. This, says Jesus, is the time when we pass from death - “the wages of sin is death” - to life - “the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (John 5:24; Romans 6:23).
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When Berkouwer warns us that we must not separate election from the believer’s confession of faith, arising from his experience of grace, his words are directed against (a) a universal election of the kind taught by Barth (and the universal salvation which has often been taught by taught by those who have seen themselves as building on Barth’s theology); and (b) a particular election, which objectifies the biblical expression, “before the foundation of the world”, in a way that threatens to make our human experience meaningless.
Berkouwer’s concept of the depth-aspect of salvation is very important. He is not teaching that all are elect. He is not teaching that all will be saved. He is teaching that we are saved by grace through faith. By distancing himself from a particular election, which is dissociated from our human response to the Gospel, he is not suggesting that there are many people for whom faith is not a real possibility. By distancing himself from Barth’s universal election, he has not been drawn into speaking, as Barth did, of “the ontological impossibility of unbelief.”
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Barth was reacting against the Calvinism associated with a particular election and a double predestination. Berkouwer has not followed Barth in his reinterpretation of Calvinism. He has not, however, left us in the same place. Berkouwer has something to say to (a) the Calvinism against which Barth reacted; and (b) Barth and his followers. To both, he says, “We need to listen carefully to what God is saying to us in His Word. We need to take care that, in our preaching of the Gospel, that we remain faithful to all that God is saying to us in His Word.

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