Matthias Gockel on Barth and Schleiermacher on the Doctrine of Election: A Review – Part VII

Brewing away throughout Gockel’s book, not unoften rearing its head, is the question of universal election and universal salvation. Gockel contends that Barth’s christological revision leads him to abandon his 1936 objection to universalism and affirmation of an eschatological division between the elect and the reprobate. Barth now ‘joins Schleiermacher in leaving open the possibility of a “final opening up and expansion of the circle of election and calling” which may include everyone’ (p. 188). Barth’s reluctance, however, to embrace universalism leads to some pointed challenges by Gockel.

Gockel notes that both Schleiermacher and Barth share a stance coherent with supralapsarianism’s claim that the decree of predestination precedes that of creation and Fall, although they both go further in their assertion that God’s mercy is the decisive criterion not of redemption only but also of predestination. Gockel argues that despite Barth’s ‘own explicit unwillingness to go that far’, that is, to embrace a universal predestination to salvation, his affirmation of universal election ‘implies some form of universal salvation’ (p. 189).

Gockel also contends that Barth’s appeal to God’s freedom is inconsistent with Barth’s own position regarding God’s self-determination to be Immanuel in Jesus Christ. Gockel notes that Barth’s (and Schleiermacher’s) caution on the issue can be partly explained by the fact that ‘any affirmation of universalism would have meant the endorsement of an ecumenical heresy, which could have cost him dearly’ (p. 208). The question, however, remains: How can that which has already been overcome in Jesus Christ ever be undone? How can this impossible possibility remain? Gockel suggests that Schleiermacher is at least more consistent here with his emphasis on the unity of God’s will. With all of Barth’s massively powerful christological revisioning, he, according to Gockel, ‘shied away from certain far-ranging implications’ (p. 205). ‘One should ask’, Gockel suggests, ‘whether a consistent theory of an Apokatastasis, far from presenting a danger or even a threat, might not be a more satisfying option than the claim that the New Testament leaves us with a paradoxical constellation of the “universalism of the divine salvific will” versus the “particularism of judgement”’ (p. 208).

I confess that I sympathise with Barth’s reluctance to embrace with certainty an apokatastasis panton, even while I hold out, with Barth, hope in such a reconciliation. Barth was right to insist that God’s grace is characterised by God’s freedom. This means not only that we must never impose limits on the scope of grace, but also that we must never impose a universalist ‘system’ on grace either. To embrace either option would be to compromise the freedom of grace and also to presume that we can define the precise scope of God’s grace. That is why Barth’s theology of grace incorporates a dialectical protest: he protests both against a system of universalism and against a denial of universalism. The essential point, for Barth, is that God’s grace is completely free; that when God acts in grace it is none other than God himself who acts in freedom. When God comes to us in his grace, therefore, we can be certain that no third party or shadowy motive is twisting his arm. Because of this divine freedom and because of the nature of divine grace as grace, we can neither deny nor affirm, therefore, the possibility of universal salvation. I confess with Abraham, ‘Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?’ (Gen 18:25). Barth writes,

The proclamation of the Church must make allowance for this freedom of grace. Apokatastasis Panton? No, for a grace which automatically would ultimately have to embrace each and every one would certainly not be free grace. It surely would not be God’s grace. But would it be God’s free grace if we could absolutely deny that it could do that? Has Christ been sacrificed only for our sins? Has He not, according to 1 John 2:2, been sacrificed for the whole world? … [Thus] the freedom of grace is preserved on both these sides … Even in the midst of hell, grace would still be grace, and even in the midst of hell it would have to be honored and praised and therefore announced to the other inhabitants of hell. It is not free for nothing, but it is also not grace for nothing. We should certainly not know it if we were of the opinion that we could stop short of announcing it.

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