28 July 2007

of barth & evangelicals 5

The final two talks of the Princeton Seminary Barth conference dealt with the issues of eschatology and universalism. Bruce McCormack of Princeton presented a paper entitled “That He May Have Mercy Upon All: Karl Barth and the Problem of Universalism.”

McCormack's paper was largely biblical in character, with some attention to Barth, and very provocative. He began by noting that the most intractable problem in Barth seems to be universalism. For Barth, because all are in Christ in election, Christ is the savior of all, united to all humanity. Also in Christ’s descent into hell, he suffered hell for all humanity who are in Christ in his descent.

When Barth couples his belief in universal atonement with a belief in irresistible grace, we then have the problem of universalism. Yes, asks McCormack, is the impossibility of universalism really so clear from the New Testament?

McCormack organized his remaining points by looking at Pauline eschatology and more briefly at Barth’s early engagement with Paul (double predestination and the extent of the atonement) and at Barth’s mature thought on universalism.

With regard to Pauline eschatology, McCormack suggested that there is a tension within the New Testament witness, where the universalism of divine intent or of Christ's mediation remains side-by-side with divine judgment. God sent his Son into the world to be the Savior of all and what Jesus accomplished is already done. On the other hand, the gospel message calls for faith but not all believe, leading to a separation among people, those who believe and those who do not.

There are at least two strategies for dealing with the seeming tension. Calvinism takes eschatological passages as clear and uses them to explain (away?) the more universalistic ones; Arminianism takes both sorts of passages as clear and so concludes that the freedom of our human will must be able to trump the divine will to save.

Both of these views share the assumption that explicit faith in Jesus Christ is necessary for salvation and want to eliminate tension in order to maintain the authoritative status of the New Testament.

McCormack didn’t think we need to eliminate the tension and that doing so takes Scriptural teaching as having a fundamentally logical structure. The tension, however, he suggested, is not so much a contradiction in a logical sense, as a tension in terms of the already/not yet of history and eschatology.

Paul's theological perspective is unlike our own typical thinking about soteriology - his theology is shot through with eschatology. We’ve accommodated ourselves to lives in this present age and so seek to domesticate Paul.

McCormack suggested that there are three certainties for Paul: [1] the cross and resurrection are the incursion of God’s future into the present world; [2] the Spirit is the power who makes church an eschatological community conditioned by hope; and [3] the Day of Lord involves judgment and vindication of God’s work, with a judgment of all according to works.

And yet, we must grapple with Pauline universalism, in which Adam and Christ are placed in parallel - "…as all died, so all will be made alive" - a parallelism we find in both 1 Corinthians and Romans 5.

But do these “all’s” all have the same referent, McCormack asked. 1 Corinthians 15 suggests the possibility of shift, especially verses 23 and 24 in which “those who belong to Christ” are the referent of the second “all,” though there is no direct reference to judgment against those who don't belong to Christ.

In Romans 5, McCormack suggested, the horizon is not just potential redemption, but real and true redemption. Christ accomplished the reality of redemption, not something that needs an additional act in order to be complete. We may also note Paul's use of “much more surely.” Not only are Adam and Christ parallel, but Christ has much more significant than Adam, suggesting that the scope of Christ's redemption cannot be more narrow than that of Adam's sin.

McCormack pointed out that while Romans 5 doesn’t immediately say how the redemption wrought by Christ is received, Paul everywhere else supposes that eschatological salvation is only for those who have believed in Christ in this world, e.g., faith is the difference between “those who are perishing” and “those who are being saved.”

From these reflections upon Paul, McCormack turned to M. Eugene Boring's classic article on "The Language of Universal Salvation in Paul." According to Boring, the most basic exegetical decision we need to make is whether Paul has a fully coherent eschatology.

Even if so, we have options: [a] perhaps Paul underwent development, [b] perhaps Paul subordinates the universal to the particular, [c] perhaps Paul subordinates the particular to the universal.

Boring himself argues that Paul has no coherent eschatology, though he holds that there is a strongly universalistic underlying structure in Paul. As Boring sees it, the forensic dimension of Paul's eschatology tends towards particularism – human responsibility. The kingly dimension of Paul's eschatology, on the other hand, tends towards universalism. We can explain Paul's emphasis on responsibility, then, as necessary in order to not turn universalism into a fate and to underwrite evangelism.

According to McCormack, Boring maked three mistakes: [a] he failed to reckon with how much the forensic serves the kingly for Paul; [b] he doesn’t answer Calvinist exegesis regarding election and efficacious grace; and [c] he doesn’t take possibility of development and progress in Paul's theology seriously enough (and to says that Paul's theology progressed isn't to say that Paul is incoherent or contradicted himself).

McCormack's own reading of Romans focuses in on chapters 9 through 12, suggesting that at the Second Coming “all” Israel will be saved, at the time of the general resurrection, though not apart from faith in Christ. Moo agrees, he noted, but takes this corporately, referring to the bulk of Jews living at the time of the eschaton, not necessarily involving each particular Israelite. But, suggested McCormack, this doesn’t account for God’s gifts and calling being irrevocable.

Moreover, McCormack urges, when Paul says, “For God has imprisoned all in disobedience in order to show mercy on all,” the first "all" is unrestricted and so the second would seem to be as well. On the other hand, Paul only speaks of a “full number” of Gentiles, not all, which suggests a subset.

Thus, like Barth, we cannot appeal to Paul for a doctrine of universal salvation. That is to say, McCormack noted, we cannot believe that "all will be saved" as a matter of fact or dogma, but Paul gives us reason to hope this may be the case.

As McCormack sees things, universal salvation and limited atonement are the only two real options in light of Pauline emphasis upon faith as a sovereign gift of grace. Given Jesus’ teaching on hell, Calvinists favor limited atonement.

How does McCormack account for Jesus’ teaching and sense of urgency in New Testament? With Barth, he suggested that these teachings hold out very real possibilities, but are warnings, not predictions of a particular outcome. They are necessary for preventing antinomianism – avoiding either laxity (universalism) or despair (limited atonement).

Suzanne McDonald, now of Calvin Seminary, presented a paper called “Evangelical Questioning of Election in Barth: A Pneumatological Perspective from the Reformed Heritage.” Unfortunately, this was towards the end of the conference and I was fading and the paper, given time constraints was a bit rushed. Thus my notes are very sketchy.

McDonald raised the question of how Reformed orthodoxy dealt with the Holy Spirit’s work in election. Universalism is a problem, she suggested, but the underlying problem is the doctrine of the Holy Spirit in the application of redemption.

For Barth, on her reading, the whole of election is encompassed in Jesus Christ. Reprobation is swallowed up in election; justice and judgment are swallowed up in mercy and grace. Christ thus becomes a concrete universal.

In light of this McDonald asked whether Barth’s doctrine of election is internally coherent or not. Given his theological contours, shouldn’t he be a more decisive universalist? Why does he hedge his language about universal salvation? Is God really free to exclude anyone on Barth’s account of election?

McDonald urged that what is necessary is a greater focus upon the application of redemption - how it is that we are found to be “in Christ.” Here we come to the role of the Holy Spirit.

In the remainder of her presentation, McDonald took up the theology of John Owen to explicate the orthodox Calvinist understanding of the role of Spirit in the application of redemption.

There are some analogues to Barth in Owen, for instance, insofar as the works of God ad extra reflect, for Owen, the being of God ad intra.

But in other respects, Owen and Barth part ways. For Barth, election is a fundamental metaphysical category in terms of which all else is defined and explained. For Owen, on the other hand, the main divisions are "called" and "uncalled," "believing" and "not yet believing," rather than elect and reprobate.

According to McDonald, in Owen there is, therefore, a greater emphasis on the ongoing application of redemption in history over against Barth's more ahistorical, eternal emphasis. The upshot of this is that Barth tends to downplay pneumatology in his election Christology. Thus, suggested McDonald, Reformed orthodoxy's rich doctrine of the Spirit provides an important corrective to and deepening of Barth's soteriology.

In the discussion that followed McDonald's paper, Hunsinger maintained that Barth does, in fact, account for much of what she wanted to emphasize and that his pneumatology is not as weak as one might think.

As I noted before, I found this conference one of the most stimulating and interesting I've attended in the past several years and look forward to see many of the papers in print.