Paul among the Evangelicals, §1: The Problem

1. The Problem: Rom. 5:12-21

Few passages have exercised such a profound influence on the shape of Christian theology as Rom. 5:12-21. Moreover, as William Barclay notes, “no passage is more difficult for a modern mind to understand”[1]—though, of course, not only modern minds. The famous so-called Adam-Christ typology in these verses has vexed interpreters for centuries, particularly the universal dimension of “πάντας ἀνθρώπους” (Rom 5:12). In his treatise, “On Marriage and Concupiscence,” Augustine states that Paul does not mean “that Christ removes to life all those who die in Adam.” He then offers this interpretation:
[Paul] said “all” and “all,” because, as without Adam no one goes to death, so without Christ no man to life. Just as we say of a teacher of letters, when he is alone in a town: This man teaches all their learning; not because all the inhabitants take lessons, but because no man who learns at all is taught by any but him.[2]
Calvin, for his part, offers the standard Protestant interpretation in his commentary:
[T]he benefit of Christ does not come to all men, while Adam has involved his whole race in condemnation; and the reason of this is indeed evident; for as the curse we derive from Adam is conveyed to us by nature, it is no wonder that it includes the whole mass; but that we may come to a participation of the grace of Christ, we must be ingrafted in him by faith.[3]
Augustine and Calvin reflect the general consensus of the Christian tradition, which has insisted that passages such as Rom. 5:12-21 and 1 Cor. 15:21-22 are not to be interpreted as favoring a universal salvation.

Recently, the issue has become more acute among English-speaking Protestant evangelicals, who have been unimpressed with the options historically available to them: (1) a so-called Arminianism which locates salvation anthropologically in the free decision for Christ, and (2) a so-called Augustinianism-Calvinism which locates salvation in the decretum absolutum of double predestination. Two notable examples of this ongoing conversation include Universal Salvation? The Current Debate,[4] which takes its cue from the work of philosopher Thomas Talbott, especially his book, The Inescapable Love of God,[5] and The Evangelical Universalist,[6] a recent pseudonymous publication that seeks to offer a biblically grounded position on universal salvation. In these works, as well as in other articles, Rom. 5:12-21 is a central passage. While patristic theologians like Origen[7] and Gregory of Nyssa[8] and modern theologians like Hans Urs von Balthasar[9] are frequently mentioned, Karl Barth is often at the center of these discussions both as a theologian and as an exegete. Barth is often accused of (or praised for) being a universalist, generally with reference to his later theology post-Church Dogmatics II/2.[10] Few, however, consider Barth’s exegetical insights into Rom. 5. By first examining the arguments for and against a universalist interpretation of Rom. 5:12-21, I argue that while Barth’s interpretation of Romans does justice to the central concerns of each side in his formulation of a dialectical anthropology in the “shadow” of a “consistent eschatology,”[11] there are certain aspects to the Pauline text itself which Barth does not touch upon that are important in the debate over universalism.


1. William Barclay, The Letter to the Romans (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1975), 78.

2. Augustine, “On Marriage and Concupiscence,” Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, vol. 1.5 (New York: Christian Literature Publishing, 1886), Book II.46, 302.

3. Commentary on Rom. 5:17.

4. Robin A. Parry and Christopher H. Partridge, eds., Universal Salvation? The Current Debate (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003).

5. Thomas Talbott, The Inescapable Love of God (Parkland: Universal Publishers, 1999).

6. Gregory MacDonald, The Evangelical Universalist (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2006).

7. See Origen, On First Principles, trans. G. W. Butterworth (London: SPCK, 1936).

8. See Gregory of Nyssa, The Catechetical Oration of Gregory of Nyssa (Early Church Classics), trans. J. H. Srawley (London: SPCK, 1917); On the Soul and the Resurrection (Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, vol. 2.5), trans. W. Moore (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1988). See also M. Ludlow, Universal Salvation: Eschatology in the Thought of Gregory of Nyssa and Karl Rahner (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).

9. Hans Urs von Balthasar, Dare We Hope ‘That all Men be Saved?’ with A Short Discourse on Hell (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988).

10. Oliver Crisp, in particular, has presented a cogent argument for why Barth’s theological positions in the Church Dogmatics necessitates universalism. Of course, on purely logical grounds, Crisp is entirely right. But of course Barth’s concern for divine sovereignty and his rejection of human logic as the highest value in theology prevents him from drawing the conclusion of universalism. See Oliver D. Crisp, “On Barth’s Denial of Universalism,” Themelios 29:1 (2003), 18-29.

11. See Bruce L. McCormack, Karl Barth’s Critically Realistic Dialectical Theology: Its Genesis and Development 1909-1936 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 207-40.


Anonymous said…
This is distressingly my favorite theological subject. I’m familiar with some but not all of the works you mention, and I’m curious to know if they address the problem “free will” from a phenomenological perspective as well as a “causal” connection between expressions of faith and salvation (how our salvation is dependent upon our choice).

Specifically, we feel we are free, we experience ourselves as making choices, but I know there’s a distinction between the apparent experienced freedom of simply making a choice (shall I have oatmeal or toast for breakfast) and the freedom Christ exhibited in his life and death. God’s freedom can’t involve the reasoning out of pros and cons….at least as we try to do. And there are plenty of writings about how our freedom only enables “downward transcendence” whereas grace alone enables “upward transcendence.” In short, by ourselves, we only make a mess.

But as you mention, the standard Christian interpretation is that our salvation is connected to our own choice; the suggestion that everyone is eventually saved generally makes people mad. They are enraged by the suggestion one could do anything and end up eventually saved…..revealing a rather Jansenist mindset it seems.

Is part of the problem equating the experience of choice with real freedom? And do you think people resisting universalism comes down to wanting to believe one is better than the next poor soul? Or maybe universalism also suffers from a primitive view of salvation; rather than regarding it in ANY way as ‘a ticket to heaven,’ perhaps would the view of salvation as an eternally deepening relationship with God make a difference?
Halden said…
"Is part of the problem equating the experience of choice with real freedom?"

I can't imagine a better question to ask when thinking about this topic, or human agency in general. Love it. Absolutely.
Unknown said…
Thanks Halden..the distinction between what we think of as free will and real divinized freedom isn’t mine; I’ve read it in so many places I don’t know exactly which author has the best discussion. Maybe Ben or David or one of the others would know…..

I also wonder about the most extreme test case: evil spirits. Von Balthazar and others don’t go so far as to include fallen angels in their arguments of who will eventually be redeemed, but some Orthodox saints (such as Isaac of Syria) do. Unless we can provide a coherent form of universalism that includes all of creation, then I don’t think it’s completely universal. I don’t know why many authors don’t go that far….maybe it’s because they will be too easily dismissed.

With Halden, I think you've addressed the right question at stake in this whole discussion. I touch on the issue later on in the essay, but I have yet to devote any length of time exploring my own views on the subject. But I don't think anyone has written more profoundly on the subject than Karl Barth, who famously described the abstract free will position -- in which good or evil are two possible paths -- as not freedom but rather slavery. True freedom is found in obedience to God.

Re: angelic beings, Madeleine L'Engle has a marvelous poem about the conversion of Satan in one of her books. I'll try to locate it and publish it on this blog.