Cutting Both Ways: Not So Much Grace, Please
For Barth, one of the clearest and most consistent ways conservative theologies perform a version of natural theology’s inevitable attempt to control God—and the neighbor, and creation—is in limiting the grace of God and thereby the goodness of the gospel news. As I’ve already noted, in virtually all of its historical forms, traditional Christian faith and theology has maintained an enduring and unswerving commitment to the vision that all must not be saved. Hell must be amply populated throughout eternity or the gospel has no meaning, from the traditional point of view. There’s no point in being a Christian if someone—indeed, a good many people—is or are not burning in hell at the end of the story. (If you don’t believe me, tell a conservative evangelical that all will be saved in the end and note the first thing that they say: But then, why should anyone believe? What would be the point of becoming a Christian? Trust me, this will happen every time.)
Conservative theologies traditionally ground this commitment to an eternally populated hell in the seemingly clear biblical witness to the fact that God is not only gracious, merciful, and forgiving, but also a holy and righteous judge. We have caught glimpses of Barth’s typically double-edged response to tradition on just this point, a response of both affirmation and critical correction. Affirmation: Barth agrees that this is indeed the biblical witness to who God is, and that Christian theology and faith must confess both God’s merciful forgiveness of sinners and God’s righteous judgment of sin. Critical correction: in seeing both God’s merciful forgiveness and righteous judgment as rooted in and determined by the one divine will, decision, Word, and act to be wholly, unequivocally, irrevocably, and irreversibly with and for the creature—yea, even and especially the sinful creature—in Jesus (through the Spirit), the last, first, Barth understands God’s judgment of sin to be of a piece with God’s salvation of the sinner. He critiques tradition for separating its thinking about God from what it knows in Jesus Christ (through the Spirit). This enables it to separate God’s gracious mercy from God’s righteous judgment as two separate eternal wills in the life of God, with two separate ends: eternal life (for some) and eternal death (for most) . . .
As I have hinted at before, this conservative limiting of God’s grace and genuflecting before the power of sin plays out in two primary ways. The Reformed traditions tend to limit God’s gracious work and gift of salvation by limiting the number of folks God elects to receive that salvation, leaving the rest of sinful humanity to receive their just desserts. Other traditions (Arminian, Wesleyan, Roman Catholic) tend to limit God’s grace by investing creaturely freedom and agency with a divine-like power over the eternal meaning and future of creaturely life, a power that not only competes with but eternally obstructs and overturns God’s eternal and concrete intention, will, and action for the salvation of all creatures. The creature’s sinful no to God proves to be finally more powerful than the divine Yes of God’s eternal will, desire, and work for the salvation of all. In all of these traditions, the result is the same. God’s grace—and the goodness of the news—is radically limited by our need to have someone get what they deserve by burning in hell for all eternity.
While perhaps less obvious, we must not think that liberal or progressive theologies are without their own forms of limiting the grace of God. With regard to the grace at work in salvation, this is most obvious in the very appropriate offence taken at the thought of there being a place at the cosmic wedding feast for unrepentant—or even repentant—perpetrators of unjust violence and cruelty. If there is no just come-uppance for the unjust oppressor, how good can the news really be for the victims of injustice and oppression? And in terms of the wider, more fundamental ways in which grace is essentially related to divine freedom in Barth’s theology: liberal and progressive theologies cannot bear a God that is free—free from their criteria for proper divinity, and so from their veto power—any more than conservative theologies. As I’ve already suggested, a God that is free from theologically progressive approval and authorization, and from the progressive ethics understood to be the content and criteria of all proper, viable religion, is a God that can only be experienced as a danger and a threat. A good liberal or progressive wouldn’t trust such a God as far as they could throw them. God must be kept tightly under the strict control of our best, most recent and sophisticated philosophical conceptualizing and theorizing, our most refined cultural and aesthetic sensibilities, and/or our best, most progressive ethical visions and commitments.
So, Is Barth a Universalist? Does Barth, then, affirm a doctrine of universal salvation? If the reader is guessing that the answer—or at least my answer—to this question will be something like, “Well, yes and no, but ultimately, yes,” then they have been paying attention!”
Praise for Reading Karl Barth
“Without glossing over criticism of Barth from both the left and right, Boesel brilliantly captures the particular beauty of Barth’s theology—that enormously spacious YES. This is an excellent, thorough, surprisingly enjoyable, and even occasionally humorous read. I highly recommend it for students, pastors, and the general reader who wants to be reminded of (or hear for the first time) Barth’s enduringly provocative and inspiring work.”
—Debbie Blue, pastor, House of Mercy
“This witty, winsome, and provocative text has the capacity to charm and intrigue those suspicious of Barth and to unsettle and disconcert more traditional allies and defenders. It offers an assured, distinctive, and even emphatic reading of Barth in its own right, which merits our attention, consideration, and critique.”
—Doug Gay, University of Glasgow
“Sharp, clear, and witty, in this introduction Chris Boesel invites all readers of Barth to a fresh appreciation for the value of his theology today. Longtime Barth readers will find refreshing return to the heart of the matter: the good news that God is for us—all of us—in and through Jesus Christ. Those new to or skeptical of Barth will discover how his theological orthodoxy leads to radical social critique and activism. A welcome word for a weary world!”
—Martha Moore-Keish, Columbia Theological Seminary
About the Author
Chris Boesel is associate professor of Christian Theology at Drew Theological School in Madison, New Jersey. He is the author of In Kierkegaard’s Garden: Why Derrida Doesn’t Read Kierkegaard When He Reads Kierkegaard (2021) and Risking Proclamation, Respecting Difference: Christian Faith, Imperialistic Discourse, and Abraham (2008).