Barth’s second major move [in opposition to evangelical universalism] follows from the first: he rejects universalism because he rejects salvation in general as something that can be possessed. Commenting on Rom. 3:7-8, Barth writes, “I am in possession of no justification, no excuse, no confirmation either of my being or of my behavior.”45 Justification, like faith, is a divine reality and not an anthropological one; salvation is not a property of certain individuals but a divine determination. Barth takes with utmost seriousness Paul’s logic throughout the first five chapters of Romans, in which both Jews and Gentiles—i.e., all humanity—are placed equally under the righteous judgment of God; humanity, for both Paul and Karl, exists in solidarity before the righteousness of God. Thus Barth: “The reality of the righteousness of God is attested by its universality.”46 Barth’s dialectic places all humanity together in a diastatic relation to God:
The strange UNION—of men one with another—must assert and expose the strange, and yet saving, SEPARATION—between God and man. In this separation is displayed the righteousness of God. . . . The illusion that some men have an advantage over others must be completely discarded. The words there is no distinction need to be repeated and listened to again and again.47The primary distinction in Barth’s theology is not between accepted and rejected, or between those who accept God and those reject God—the latter distinction is common to evangelicals on both sides of the universalism debate—but between God and the world, between eternity and time. Between Creator and creation there exists an “infinite qualitative distinction,” a barrier which God alone can cross. As a result, “the whole concrete world is ambiguous and under KRISIS. . . . The true God, Himself removed from all concretion, is the Origin of the KRISIS of every concrete thing, the Judge, the negation of this world.”48 The universality of God’s righteousness is a universality of rejection which encompasses the entirety of the cosmos. In positing this divine rejection, Barth is more universalist than the universalists.
The universality of rejection is, at the same time, a universality of affirmation. There are not two universalities, but one. Barth does not mean to say that after the universality of our rejection, we then enter, here and now, into a second universality of our salvation; this would be to turn salvation again into a possession within time and space. Barth much more radically places salvation beyond the horizon of history. Salvation is a non-historical reality which history can only await in hope.49 Only in the negation of history—in the negation of the negation—is salvation, affirmation, and justification50 a reality: “By making us His prisoners, He sets us free; by rejecting us as we are, He affirms us to be what we are not . . . By hope we are His. Thus the new subject emerges in the negation of the old, known, human subject.”51 But hope, like faith, must not be domesticated and turned into another kind of human work: “We cannot transform hope—and deny it—by making of it a present reality.”52 As long as there are grounds for boasting—even if that means boasting in one’s “insecurity and brokenness”—this still remains a sinful “confidence in human self-justification.” Even if the work is “a work of self-negation,” it remains under the crisis of divine judgment.53
The dialectical relation between rejection and affirmation is especially apparent in Barth’s exegesis of Romans 5:12-21. According to Marshall, “one might almost say that [Rom. 5:12-21] becomes the lens through which [Talbott] views the rest of the NT,”54 and something similar could be said of Barth, at least in relation to the rest of Romans. In his discussion of these verses, Barth articulates what I call a dialectical anthropology,55 in which “each particular man is therefore doubly conditioned . . . on the one hand, by that which dissolves his particularity, and on the other, by that which affirms it.”56 The former—dissolution—Barth interprets as the reality of Adam, and the latter—affirmation—is the reality of Christ. The former is the old human being; the latter is the new human. In our historical existence, we only know Adam; we know nothing of the new human in the present condition of the world, but that does not make it any less true. In fact, Barth states clearly that both Adam and Christ are realities for all people:
Both . . . are universal, orderly, necessary, and unavoidable. If a man be in Adam, he is an old, fallen, imprisoned, creature: if he be in Christ, he is a creature, new, reconciled and redeemed (2 Cor. 5.17). There he dies, here he enters into life (2 Cor. 4.12). But these two worlds do not exist side by side, nor do the old and the new man compose two men. For the possibility of the one involves the impossibility of the other; and the impossibility of the one involves the possibility of the other.57Again, we see Barth’s emphasis on one reality viewed dialectically. There are not two worlds, two humans, two possibilities side-by-side; rather there is one world, one human, one actuality “doubly conditioned” by Adam and Christ, each the negation of the other. Of course, this is not the end of the story. Adam and Christ do not exist in static polarity. Christ is rather the goal, “the EGO of the coming world,” on the basis of which “there is no subsequent reverse movement.”58 As a result, “the dualism of Adam and Christ . . . exists only in so far as it dissolves itself.” Barth’s dialectical anthropology does not place the No and the Yes in static opposition, but instead clearly moves toward a final reality: the new human, the new world.59
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45. Romans, 83.
46. Ibid., 99-100.
47. Ibid., 100.
48. Ibid., 82.
49. Barth would later change his mind on this when he grounds salvation in the historical reality of Jesus Christ as the one in whom humanity is both rejected and accepted, condemned and reconciled. Defining salvation as non-historical is an attempt on Barth’s part to protect the non-givenness of salvation, i.e., the fact that salvation is not something within our grasp, something humans can earn or possess. This insight, at least, Barth maintained throughout his theological developments, albeit with a later christological grounding.
50. Barth consistently views justification in Romans as God’s justification of Godself. In that God justifies and affirms God’s own righteousness, God justifies and affirms others. That this takes the form of negation in Barth’s commentary is apparent throughout. Commenting on Rom. 1:16-17, Barth writes: “[God] affirms Himself by denying us as we are and the world as it is. . . . He justifies us by justifying Himself” (40-41).
51. Romans, 150.
52. Ibid., 153.
53. Ibid., 110.
54. Marshall, “The New Testament Does Not Teach Universal Salvation,” in Parry and Partridge, Universal Salvation? The Current Debate, 61.
55. Cf. C. K. Barrett, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans (New York: Harper & Row, 1957), 116-17. In his commentary, Barrett suggests reading Rom. 5:12-21 in a dialectical way as well, which probably demonstrates some indebtedness to Barth. He writes: “Condemnation and justification are thus both of them universal possibilities, and even universal actualities, in the sense that they point to a dialectical truth which is valid for mankind as a whole, and for each individual man. The resolution of this dialectical duality lies ultimately not with man but with the merciful God” (117).
56. Romans, 164.
57. Ibid., 165.
58. Ibid., 181, 177.
59. Cf. McCormack, Karl Barth’s Critically Realistic Dialectical Theology, 266-69.