A Brief Rejoinder (not really) To Roger Olson’s Reading of Karl Barth as a [hopeful] Universalist

I wish I had more time, this will have to suffice until then.

barthartRoger Olson, evangelical Arminian par excellence, has offered an argument in an essay he has written for his blog (the essay was just released today, Sunday March 10th, 2013) that argues that Karl Barth was—by the implicit logic of Barth’s theological program—an Christian universalist. Here is how Olson concludes his over 10,000 word essay:

The main contribution, if it can be called that, of this research project is that Barth was and was not a universalist. The solution is not sheer paradox, however. He was a universalist in the sense of everyone, all human persons, being reconciled to God, not just as something potential but as something actual from God’s side. He was not a universalist in the sense of believing that everyone, all human persons, will necessarily know and experience that reconciliation automatically, apart from any faith, having fellowship with God now or hereafter. Without doubt, however, he was a hopeful universalist in that second sense of the word. [read full essay here]

And here is how I initially responded via comment at his blog:

[First, thank you for engaging Barth this way—and again, thank you for noticing us “Evangelical Calvinists” :-) !]

My initial response is that your final conclusion is unremarkable (as I’m sure you already know) in regard to the kind of “double election” Barth was committed to; and that this all takes shape through Barth’s critically dialectical hermeneutic. So I say your conclusion is unremarkable because it is only consistent with what one should expect if they start and end where Barth does; i.e. dialectically.

I think I will save most of my response (since I don’t have it yet) for a blog post (at my blog https://growrag.wordpress.com). I have been reading Arminius lately, and I am not sure you have an alternative theological construct that provides the kind of hermeneutical and exegetical haven of rest that you seem to think is available. To be sure, either way, this wouldn’t undercut Barth’s alternative way (vis-a-vis your Arminian one), but I would venture to say that given the finite explanation of things–relatively speaking of course–Barth’s conclusion versus Arminius’ or Calvin’s might not look as foreboding (or heterodox, or worse, heretical) as you seem to be suggesting ‘implicitly’ (i.e. following your logic through) throughout your essay in regard to Barth’s offering.

Anyway, I look forward to responding to this essay in days to come. Thanks for taking the time to do this, Roger!

He does mention us Evangelical Calvinists, as you will see if you read the essay.

I really do not know what else to say, other than what my brief comment mentions. Olson’s conclusion is not surprising in the slightest; in fact there are numerous publications by Barth scholars, and others, that have concluded much the same many many years ago. In fact there is nothing controversial or that insightful about Professor Olson’s final conclusions; I guess I am underwhelmed. I appreciate the time he put into engaging in this personal voyage of self discovery, relative to understanding Barth for himself. But I am unsure how Olson’s conclusions give us anything more conclusive than what has been available and accepted knowledge about Barth for many years.

Olson believes that Barth’s view of salvation, objectified as it is in the elected humanity of Christ, necessarily requires that all of humanity is ontologically redeemed in the humanity of Christ; and I would say Olson is correct. But the interesting critique that Olson offers of Barth is this:

[…] So, what is the distinction between Christians and other “men?” The context (long paragraph) makes absolutely clear that the difference is not “being saved” versus “not being saved” but knowing and testifying of the “new being of man” in Jesus Christ versus not knowing it. It is epistemological, not ontological. [read the full essay here]

This is rather odd, really. Since Barth (as Olson has just illustrated, prior to his conclusion, which I just quoted) just has made the argument (of Barth’s view) that salvation is deeply ontological; so deep, in fact, that it took God in Christ to penetrate the ontological depths of humanity, and recreate that in the resurrection of Jesus. So “saving” faith is not “just” epistemological for Barth (or Torrance), it is ontologically grounded in the vicarious faith of Christ for us (He is our “High Priest” and mediator after all I Tim. 2.5-6). This is one of the continued problems that Professor Olson has with reading us Evangelical Calvinists, and now Barth; there is a latent dualism informing Olson’s interpretive strategy when it comes to interpreting Barth and his respective theo-anthropology. A counter question could be; if Christ’s humanity (as the image of God Col. 1.15) is not the ground of all humanity (as its ‘first-fruits’), then what serves as that ground? Is there a separate ontology for our humanity that is indeed distinct from the kind that Jesus assumed for us in His incarnation? And if there is a separate humanity (ontologically), as Olson, enthymemically must presume, then who is it that is arguing that salvation is “just” epistemological? It is clearly not Barth (nor Torrance, nor us Evangelical Calvinists), but it would be Olson’s style of Arminianism. Since the ground of faith comes from individual people (the elect who God predestined, according to Arminius and Arminian theology, as he looked down [foreknowledge] the halls of history and saw who of their own free will place their faith in Christ) and their assent (and trust) in the fact of what Jesus did for them. It is not Barth who affirms what Olson argues he does, in this regard; instead it is Olson who affirms that salvation is merely an epistmeological exercise. I think “one” of the problems attendant with Olson’s reading of Barth here, is that there is a lacunae in Olson’s theological anthropology (among other things). I should say, that Olson has abstracted humanity out from Christ’s in a way, that the only real affect salvation has for people is if “they choose” salvation or not. This is a soley subjective understanding of salvation, that for one thing is epistemological only (i.e. there is nothing of ontological significance in what Christ has done for humanity, for Olson’s view).

Anyway, this isn’t a very careful response to Olson (I will try to do that in print form someday); but it is an initial response, and so it is what it is.


  1. I was excited to see Evangelical Calvinism mentioned in his essay. So few people are even aware that there is an alternative to Federal Calvinism.


  2. Kevin Davis · ·

    if Christ’s humanity (as the image of God Col. 1.15) is not the ground of all humanity (as its ‘first-fruits’), then what serves as that ground? Is there a separate ontology for our humanity that is indeed distinct from the kind that Jesus assumed for us in His incarnation?…there is nothing of ontological significance in what Christ has done for humanity, for Olson’s view

    Yep, that’s the point that must be hammered home. Olson begins with anthropology, an anthropology informed by the law (natural theology). The law is more basic than Christ, for Olson and all Arminians.


  3. Michael, me too. Roger Olson has engaged with us more than once now; the first time because we asked him, and he obliged :-).


    Yes, this is the real issue I have with Olson; he is an Arminian … he needs to come into the fold of the Evangelical Calvinists ;-).



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