The Puzzle of Salvation: Crystallizing the Difference Between Augustianian Salvation & Barthian [Evangelical Calvinist] Salvation

George Hunsinger, in his really superb book How To Read Karl Barth: The Shape of His Theology, sketches the difference between Augustinian (classical) salvation, and what Barth offers as a better (in my view) puzzlealternative. In this sketch what emerges is very profound, and should help to crystallize further what Myk Habets and myself (and I have been frequently on my blog here over the years) have been trying to articulate in regard to what we have been calling a ‘Christ-conditioned’ or (pace Barth) ‘Christ-concentrated’ approach to a doctrine of God, and then subsequent things like in regard to salvation in particular. What emerges in this sketch — at the end of it — is the stumbling block point for so many of the people I have engaged with around this particular question over the years; and usually it stumbles people because they are still trying to appreciate evangelical Calvinism, they are still trying to appreciate Barth through Augustinian and classical categories of conception — I hope what I am about to share from Hunsinger on Barth will finally help to make clear why trying to read us (the Evangelical Calvinists and Barth) this way simply will not work, and in the end always terminates in frustration and not fruit. So without further ado, here is Hunsinger on Barth and the difference in approach between Augustinian trajectory and Barthian trajectory:

Three things are to be noted about the universalist direction evident in Barth’s objectivist soteriology. First, the salient difference between Barth’s position and more traditional views has primarily to do with the locus of mystery. The great puzzle for more traditional views like those of Augustine or Calvin is why God should decide to save some but not others. Regardless of where the decision is thought to be taken—whether in predestination, in the cross, in the convergence of grace and faith in the individual’s spiritual life, in the last judgment, or in some combination of these and similar factors—it is still understood to be primarily a mystery about the inscrutable good pleasure of a deity who loves but does not save all (or who condemns all yet still saves a few). By contrast, the great puzzle for the Barthian view is more nearly anthropological than theological in location. The divine disposition, decision, and work for our salvation are presented in unequivocal terms. No disposition, decision, and work of God are to be found elsewhere than in Jesus Christ, who died to cancel our past, rose again to establish our future, and pleads for us to all eternity.

The mystery pertaining to God as such is not the puzzle of an inscrutable decision to save some, but not all. It is the mystery of an unfathomable mercy that (at great cost) saves all, not just some. But there is still a puzzle of what might be called the “dark mystery,” and it corresponds to the puzzle embedded in the more traditional views. The dark mystery for the traditional view is, as noted, that God does not will to save all. For the Barthian view, however, it is rather that not all human beings will to accept God’s salvation. The dark mystery is that human beings inexplicably (i.e., “inexplicably” within the terms of Barth’s tlnelogy [sic]) are all by appearances actually capable of rejecting the divine disposition, decision, and work in their favor. It is the puzzle of our rejection of grace, the mystery of sin, but here raised to a very high pitch, since salvation is somehow effectively rejected even though it fully avails for those who reject it. This is not the place to explore the intricacies of Barth’s conception of sin as a dark mystery. The point is simply that the problem of an inexplicable puzzle has been shifted but not eliminated. The puzzle for the more tradition view is that God’s will seems to be truly inconsistent. For the Barthian view it is that the human will to reject the divine grace, while actual, would appear to be truly impossible. It is Barth’s contention that the gospel finally leaves us with just this mystery, and not with some other “very different mystery” (IV/2, 520). [1] George Hunsigner, How To Read Karl Barth: The Shape of His Theology, 129-30.

I often come across things like this, and when I am reading them I think: “Sweet, this is awesome, if I share this with folks, this ought to clear an awful lot up in regard to where I am coming from in terms of my Evangelical Calvinism.” Then to my chagrin, usually the response is opposite. I would have come to think it is because of what I already mentioned in the prologue of this post; viz. that folks are trying to think scholastically and not dialectically about such things. In other words, folks are still so trained and conditioned by their Augustinian and classical way of thinking about these kinds of questions, that trying to negotiate with what Barth is saying, and what we Evangelical Calvinists are saying in these regards, again, becomes a point for frustration and often times, caricature, instead of an actual appreciation for what Barth and us Evangelical Calvinists, at this point, are trying to communicate — and so the result is that we keep skipping off of each other, and never are able to enter into the same door, to inhabit the same space, wherein actual table-talk and Christian fellowship can prevail (which does not finally mean ultimate agreement about such things). Further, I think another thing that hinders (and it probably should at some level), is that we have inherited the classical/traditional Augustinian approach to a doctrine of salvation so uncritically through our churches, bible studies, and hymns (and choruses); that any other or alternative ideas that might be offered to what we are used to, are automatically considered non-Biblical, and even against the gospel itself.

What I would like to ask of us, is that we would really consider the conceptual stuff itself; on its own merits. This of course will require way more than just reading this blog post (or even multiple ones). You owe it to yourself to genuinely and critically consider these things. If after that you still can affirm the more Augustinian tradition course in regard to thinking about this particular question and salvation in general; then of course, by all means, continue moving forward in that direction. But I have been attempting to (over the years) do this (i.e. critically consider these alternatives), and what I have concluded is that Karl Barth, Thomas Torrance et al. really do offer a better more Christ concentrated way forward relative to the question under consideration in this post, and then of course, in general, in regard to a doctrine of God (which implicates everything else that follows!).

I hope this post has clarified some things. If it hasn’t, then please tell me why it hasn’t. The point of departure among us, in the end, will be an issue of heremenutical variance and prior theological commitments (which is what I just said above). Just bare this in mind.

This entry was posted in Augustine, Barth, Evangelical Calvinism, George Hunsinger, Karl Barth, Salvation, Soteriology. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to The Puzzle of Salvation: Crystallizing the Difference Between Augustianian Salvation & Barthian [Evangelical Calvinist] Salvation

  1. Arjen says:

    Hi Bobby,
    I really appreciate the efforts you make to explain the difference between EC and more traditional theological views. The Hunsinger quote is good. You succeed in this post in pointing out your theological motives for embracing EC-like theologies, like Barth’s and Torrance’s. I’m on your side in this regard.
    However, I have my doubts about your methodological advice. You are asking folks to leave behind all Augustinian or scholastic ways of thinking. I can understand why you are asking that. But suppose that a scholastic theologian would ask you to do the reverse. “Then you will get my point!”, (s)he would say. I don’t think you would be prepared to do that. It would mean to surrender to presuppositions you fundamentally disagree with. But then, aren’t you asking the same kind of thing?
    That’s why I find Thomas Torrance more stimulating than Barth in this regard. Torrance goes to great length in his works to spell out the methodological and epistemological consequences of his theological stance. Barth – so far as I can see – didn’t. (By the way, that’s partly why there is such an enormous ‘Barth-industry’, I think, filling in the epistemological and ontological gaps). Torrance seems to opt for a different route than your advice in this post. He underpins his theological position with a fitting and elaborated (theological) epistemology. I know you agree with him in that respect. So, what I’m trying to say is this: your advice here seems more Barthian than Torrance-like.


  2. Bobby Grow says:

    Hi Arjen,


    Well, it is a blog post, I can only do so much. I intend to mostly provoke and give an invitation in posts like this. I don’t really think it is all that strange to ask someone to reconsider there fundamental approach; people do that with me all the time. In fact, if I believe something is true, I would think it would be strange if I didn’t offer invitations like this. Plus you seem to overlook that I already qualified in the post that this might involve a long process. And if someone isn’t willing to start in that process then I said as much that that was understandable too.

    Yeah, Torrance is different than Barth, formally, in a lot of ways. But materially, and on the point I am highlighting in the post they are in exactly the same spot–even if they might get there in their unique ways.

    Anyway, I don’t actually think what I wrote is actually all that audacious; especially since I did qualify some about your concerns in my bloggy post above.


  3. Matt Frost says:

    Part of the problem here is that there’s no way between the two. Arjen, the question isn’t whether Bobby can see the other side—he knows it and its arguments fairly well! The question is how to teach this side to a culture dominated by the other. And the problem there is that they are in genuine conflict, as Bobby notes.

    The only way I see to get between them is to pose a genuine challenge on the same grounds. Barth doesn’t. He sets up the foundation for such a challenge, but the resulting “eschatology” in soteriological terms doesn’t exist.

    Part of that is that there is no such soteriological future. It isn’t even a question! Salvation is the past, its realization is the present, and the eschaton is at every moment a reality in God’s confrontation of the world. We each face our own eschata, and salvation accomplished already is what enables our free moral effort in the face of those ends—of our lives, of the lives of others, of times, situations and places in the world. But what lies beyond those ends is already secure—and secure in a way that leaves no real doubt for any individual. That much, Barth already wrote.

    The other part is simply that Barth didn’t even begin the volume on the Spirit and Redemption. If there is a genuine challenge to this future-soteriological eschatology with which we’ve all been conditioned, that is where it lies. And it will work out what has been done in Creation and Reconciliation.

    I think there’s a primary value we often miss in Barth’s economic division, over against the “Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier” model. That model is far more amenable to the future-soteriology in which eschatological judgment determines fate. Redemption is something that happens in the middle, and sanctification is the present reality that drives us to talk about ethics as though it were of soteriological importance. But for Barth, there are two acts worth primary consideration after the Fall: reconciliation and redemption. And in that order! It rules out discussion of what the sanctified life of the redeemed looks like. It rules out any discussion of who is and is not redeemed. It compels us to discuss reconciliation as God’s action out to the ultimate eschaton, and redemption as the action of God at that ultimate end.


  4. Bobby,

    I just listened to (and downloaded!) a series of lectures by James Torrance over at Jason Goroncy’s blog. Listening to them is a great way to compare and contrast Evangelical Calvinism and Federal Calvinism. I highly recommend them, especially for people who are having a hard time following your train of thought.

    The lectures may be listened to here:


  5. Cal says:

    Just as a side note of Augustine:

    Federal Calvinism has inherited one part of the Augustinian method, but not the other. In Augustine, it can be said, lay the seeds of both the Medieval Sacral order and the Reformation. On the one hand: the sovereignty of God, and the mystery of His councils; and on the other: participating in the sacraments with effectiveness and truth.

    I say this because I think Augustine was more dialectic then some give him credit for. He definitely swung one way in his debates with the Pelagians, but there’s more to it than that.

    I think that he was not as fully christocentric as he should have been. He failed to tie election off in Christ, as Chosen and Chooser, Gift and Giver, and instead in a philosophical council of God, sounding more Platonist at times.

    Thus in Christ is the mystery hid. But that’s my solution: inbetween Augustine and Barth from what I understand. However, as I said above, unlike many strands of Augustinian thinking that emerged, I think Augustine was on the same continuum as Barth in terms of holding a mystery in tension, instead of merely scholasticizing.

    Anyway, good stuff.



  6. Bobby Grow says:

    Good words, Matt. In fact my next post will help to illustrate even further your point on the importance for eschatology and redemption for Barth. I will be quoting him in a cool little dialogue that Barth places the doubter into alongside the word of grace–also something taken from Hunsinger quoting Barth.


    Yes, that would be helpful. I have listened to those in the past.


    The problem from Augustine, as Torrance unabashedly calls it, is the “Latin heresy,” which Torrance believes Augustine made more prevalent in the Christian church than anyone else in its history (because of his prominence). The Latin heresy is the dualism latent to almost all western theologies. And so we end up with a humanity that is abstract from the humanity of God etc. Torrance’s books Theological Science and Ground and Grammar of Theology explicate this better than anything I have read on this. And it is what Barth was against as well. I personally see no via media between Barth and Augustine, and neither do my Augustinian professor and PhD friends. 🙂


  7. lotharson says:

    I believe that Calvinism has disastrous consequences for it give to unbelievers the impression that the God of Christianity is an evil monster.
    I started a series of post exposing reformed theology and you are most welcome to join the conversations:
    Calvinism is very damaging for souls.

    I have nothing against Barthian universalism but I think that this view should not be called Calvinism, even if it is also determinist.

    I would be very glad to learn your thoughts on what I have written and will write.

    Cheers from Europe.


  8. Bobby Grow says:

    Hi Lotharson,

    Barth was not a universalist even if many of his followers (Barthians) are. Thanks.


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