Why Barth Wasn’t a Universalist (In His Own Words)

I’ve been reading quite a bit of Barth and Moltmann in the last year. In both cases, it’s hard not to pick up on some hints of implied universalism here and there in their writings. I may devote a post or two later to universalism in Moltmann (it seems fairly explicit in parts of The Coming of God, which I’m reading right now)…  but for now I’d like to share how Barth responded when someone tried to nail him down on this question in April 1962 during a Q&A in Chicago.

Does not the tacit universalism displayed in the Church Dogmatics contradict the biblical predictions concerning the eternal damnation of those who freely choose to disobey God?

I like to answer in the form of questions, and I ask you now: Is there such a thing as real freedom for disobedience as you seem to presuppose? Freedom for disobedience… In my Bible I am reading… “if the Son makes you free, you are indeed free.” Indeed free, not otherwise. Disobedience doesn’t mean a kind of freedom, but imprisonment. This does neither imply nor exclude what you call tacit universalism. It doesn’t imply it because God is not compelled, God is not forced, by any “ism”, like for example the “ism” of Oregin, to give freedom to any or to all. God is not bound to do it. And so far my thesis can’t imply universalism. On the other side, I see no possibility to exclude it, because God’s grace, his sovereign grace, cannot be limited to he who believes to be saved himself. By God’s grace he cannot imagine that grace should be irresistible for him, but resistible for others. 

Let us preach and teach the freedom of God’s grace, and the real human freedom which he gives us in his grace to obey him. The real freedom to obey him. The biblical passages to which you refer are, if I’m right, to be understood as very strong warnings, rather than as a historiography of the eternal future.

Barth’s English isn’t the greatest, so I’m not sure I transcribed this perfectly. Listen to the audio of this question and answer here. It’s part of the Evangelical Theology: American Lectures 1962 audio set.

I don’t think that Barth actually totally dodges the “universalist” label in this answer… Suffice it to say he comes off as something of a “hopeful” universalist, not a dogmatic one.  I couldn’t help but be reminded of when (almost two years ago) people were trying to nail Rob Bell down with similar questions during the whole Love Wins is-Rob-Bell-a-universalist controversy. Both Barth and Bell use the word “freedom” in their defense.  For Barth the possibility is opened up by his understanding of the freedom of God’s grace (i.e. God’s sovereign choice); while for Bell it is about the God-given freedom of humans to choose. Similar outcome… but very different theological rationale.

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