Karl Barth and the Specificity of the Christian Message
By Luke Stamps
Was Karl Barth a universalist? Some readers of Barth point to passages in his mammoth, multi-volume Church Dogmatics that seem to suggest that he was. Barth’s insistence upon God’s election of humanity in Christ and upon Christ’s objective work of atonement on behalf of all humanity appears to lead inexorably to the conclusion that all human beings will be saved in the end. Other interpreters of Barth, however, disagree, noting passages where Barth’s view of God’s freedom precludes the universalist option. The debate rages on. For what it’s worth, I think Oliver Crisp’s treatment of this question demonstrates convincingly that a universalist conclusion does indeed follow from Barth’s doctrines of election and atonement—even if Barth and his followers do not always perceive or accept this conclusion.
No matter what position one takes on Barth’s ultimate position, nearly everyone can find passages in his corpus that resonate with his or her own particular concerns in the universalism debate. This fact should give us pause when claiming Barth’s authority on this issue. Nevertheless, evangelical Christians who reject any universalist position can still find in Barth some insightful arguments in defense of the exclusivity of Christ. One such passage comes in volume IV.1 (The Doctrine of Reconciliation), where Barth discusses the concreteness of the Christian message. Barth writes,
“When it speaks concretely, when it names the name of Jesus Christ, the Christian message is not referring simply to the specific form of something general, a form which as such is interchangeable: in the phrase of Lessing, a ‘contingent fact of history’ which is the ‘vehicle’ of an ‘eternal truth of reason.’ The peace between God and man and the salvation which comes to us men is not something general, but the specific thing itself: that concrete thing which is indicated by the name of Jesus Christ and not by any other name. For He who bears this name is Himself the peace and salvation. The peace and salvation can be known, therefore, only in Him, and proclaimed only in His name.”
Barth has in view here Gotthold Lessing’s “ugly ditch” of history. Lessing famously articulated the modern world’s “scandal of particularity” by arguing that there stands between us and the past a vast ugly ditch. This epistemological gap ensures that no contingent fact of history can establish the timeless truths of reason. So, for Lessing and others who came in his wake, we should not and indeed cannot seek universal truth in a particular historical event (such as the resurrection of Christ). Historical fact and metaphysical or moral truth belong in separate categories—the former cannot lead to the latter.
Barth’s citation of Lessing here is interesting because it has the effect of dismissing Lessing’s entire question. Barth seems to be arguing that even if a contingent fact of history could demonstrate an eternal truth of reason, the Christian message still could not be utilized in this fashion. The Christian faith is not simply one of a kind; that is, it is not simply one religion among many. It is not “interchangeable” with other religious forms. The Christian faith will not allow the old pluralistic trope, “All roads lead to God.” The Christian gospel does not offer a timeless moral code or a general philosophical principle. The husk of the gospel’s specificity cannot be sloughed off so that we might get at some kernel of general truth. No, according to Barth, the Christian message is irreducibly concrete and specific, because the message is none other than Jesus Christ himself—the God-Man who embodies peace with God and the salvation of men. And paradoxically it is this concreteness and this specificity that gives the Christian message its universal significance. The name of Jesus Christ, which represents his very person, is the message of peace and salvation that is to be proclaimed to all humanity. No other religion or philosophy can arrive at this destination.
Barth’s conclusion is that peace and salvation “can be known, therefore, only in Him, and proclaimed only in His name.” The emphasis is not simply on the accomplishment salvation but the knowledge and proclamation of salvation. It will not do to say that Christ is the ontological basis for salvation but not necessarily the epistemological basis for salvation, as even some evangelicals have argued (see Clark Pinnock’s chapter in this book). Peace and salvation can only be known through the proclamation of the Christian gospel. There is no other name that embodies God’s work of reconciliation.
Whether or not evangelicals can ultimately claim Barth as a proponent or an opponent of universalism remains an open question, I suppose. But exclusivist evangelicals can find support for their position in at least some passages of Barth’s Church Dogmatics. And in the passage cited above, we find a compelling response to the modern era’s “scandal of particularity”—one that begins and ends with an irreducibly specific message: that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.
Luke Stamps is a Ph.D. candidate at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in systematic theology. Luke is a weekly contributor to the Credo blog and also blogs at Before All Things. Luke is married to Josie, and they have two children, Jack and Claire. Luke is a member of Clifton Baptist Church in Louisville, KY.