Apokatastasis in Barth's Doctrine of Election

To say Barth opposes "universalism" isn't to say Barth thinks the scope of salvation is partial rather than total. It's to say that of the positions asserting total human salvation that Barth sees, he likes none of them. He is not "a universalist"—though if you're worried about that, as Lewis Smedes recollects, you might want to worry that your Bible is!

The position on total salvation that Barth gives the most press, the most explicit mention, is apokatastasis, which he treats as an eventual, total restitutio ad integrum of the world of humanity. This is the one position he chooses to serve as foil for the rest. The important question to ask is, why does he oppose it? (And really, what is it that he opposes when he does so?)

Obviously, the way to answer these questions is to go reference by reference and understand what's going on in each. And the first references come in CD II.2, sections 34 and 35, on the elections of the community and of the individual—specifically, 34.4 on the passing vs the coming humanity, and 35.3 and 35.4 on the determinations of the elect and the rejected respectively. I'm only going to hit the first one, and not promise to come back to the others here, but this is at least the crucial one for this volume.

Present vs Eschatological Humanity

The first reference appears as an aside within a very long small-print exposition on Romans 11. This is the first and only such excursus in 34.4, on "The Passing and the Coming [Humanity]", and it takes up the rest of the section—38 pages worth of exposition, after only 8 pages of main text.

This exegetical work is, of course, tainted by Barth's persistent and period-consistent assertions of Paul and Paul's assemblies as Christian rather than Jewish, and by the supersessionist assumptions that go with that claim, grounded in the likewise period-consistent presumption of Jewish rejection of Jesus. And so it is a negotiation of the relationship between the Church and Israel, Israel and the Church, from which Barth draws the valid conclusion that God is for those outside, and that punishment of those inside is not abandonment (even as he follows it with the invalid assertion that Judaism is to become ordered to the Church).

But when he gets off his interreligious high-horse and starts talking soteriology, Barth makes some solid claims about Paul vis-à-vis apokatastasis. And here it's important to understand the root of the binary that's going to show up. Israel and the Church aren't really a binary; they're two forms of the one community. The binary at work here is not inside and outside, but death and new life. The passing of sinful humanity and the coming of renewed humanity, which is as much the message of the OT as it is of the NT. Here the eschatological reality of judgment stands between the poles. The existence of the community, of the people of God in any form, is the result of judgment upon the world out of which it is called.

Because this is an exposition of Romans, Barth gets to speak of Israel as punished and disobedient—even if he manages regularly to overreach Paul's own time in asserting that reality upon contemporary Judaism. And yet Israel, as apparent outsiders because of their behavior, serves as Barth's basis for asserting inclusion into salvation regardless of merit. Sin is irrelevant to election. Soteriological demerit is "intrinsically impossible," even as we work vigorously to actualize it. Its appearance in the world therefore has no significance, except to make us miserable. Faith in Christ makes it possible to live into our salvation—I would say faith in God, but of course Barth is uninterested in any concept of fidelity to God that doesn't involve Jesus as God's sine qua non. And so, at this point, only the Church as (notional) community embodies the outward inclusiveness of salvation.

The mention of apokatastasis appears in connection with the analogy of the olive branches in Romans 11, as the form of Paul's opposite. Paul shows a salvation predicated in no way on human qualities, on any optimistic assertion of merit or possibility. God is omnipotent, but does not in fact do all possible things. We cannot guess on the basis of what is possible to God what God will or has in fact done. "It is from an optimistic estimate of [humanity] in conjunction with this postulate of the infinite potentiality of the divine being that the assertion of a final redemption of each and all, known as the doctrine of the apokatastasis, usually draws its inspiration and power." (295) Paul speaks more concretely of the God who judges, punishes, and yet still graciously saves the undeserving. Barth speaks of the God who in Jesus took our place and our punishment, and in being resurrected has demonstrated a concrete hope independent of our existence in the world. We can only believe in this; we cannot believe in belief or unbelief.

If apokatastasis predicates the final redemption of every individual on "an optimistic estimate of [humanity]," where does it get this estimate? We have to reach outside the passage slightly, but the optimism is derived from theological naturalisms. The optimism Barth attributes to apokatastasis is related to the assertion that the world of humanity is continuous with its origin—that it simply is the creature, in spite of its sinful declension from divinely-given order. God's freedom is imperiled by this optimistic soteriological assertion, not because it says that God "must" save the creature, but because such naturalisms bind God to the ways of the world of humanity, to what appears natural under the orders we have made in our being-lost. It is those orders of lost humanity that make it possible for us to presume that God will save some and not others, that merit and demerit exist and matter—as well as to potentially void one side of that balance in "universalism". We make this separation in the midst of the world, even if we seek to pull everyone over to one side of it ... but God in Christ makes a new separation: not some from others, good from bad, but rather the old from what is coming. Present humanity, and the eschatological dawn.

And so, for Barth, our hope is not that the world will be restored to a good state, because the world is only the arrangements we have made out of God's good creation. It has no good state, only better and worse, unmoored from its origin. But in the world there is, by God's active arrangement, a graciously created and preserved alternative—quite in spite of the infidelity of those that inhabit it. It is not a preservation of some part of the ordered creature from the time of its origin, but a de novo reality of God's making after the fact—at least, as regards its existence in the world. What is "the holy root of Israel" that Paul refers to? For Barth, it is clearly Jesus Christ, and so just as clearly our true human nature—and this is opposed to the "nature" defined by the branches, even if they spring from this root. Anything may be grafted into this root, and anything unworthy cut off (Calvin's exegesis—see Mark Nanos for a better, but entirely incompatible, reading of Paul here), but the ultimate and miraculous vision is of all of these branches being grafted back into the one root, to partake of salvation entirely against their self-determined "natures".

The Problem: To What Does Election Point?

We have not yet seen this happen; we have seen and will continue to see many things that seem opposed to it. The world does not make progress toward such an end. We free creatures do not cooperate with God in any consistent manner, and even our cooperation with God is replete with failure. And, of course, Barth also says that the full number of Gentiles and the full complement of Israel do not necessarily mean all Jews and all Gentiles and therefore all humanity—which makes it seem like he still upholds a partial soteriology, if not partial in exactly the ways we're partial. Making it into the new, dawning reality of eschatological humanity in Christ naturally seems to us, conditioned as we are, to be the path to salvation. If salvation is to be total, wouldn't everyone have to wind up in this community? And if everyone doesn't, if some remain outside of the inner ecclesiastical circle, doesn't that imply that not all will be redeemed?

But the end of election, or the end of reconciliation as its consequence, is not where the totality is involved. Election and reconciliation as processes that involve historical individuals and historical communities are not ways of achieving salvation, but only of delivering it, making the God-side reality more real for us in history. They are, in their impact upon the world, processes by which we come to participate by faith in the work of God for the total creature and its restoration to integrity. Election, in its creation of communities of reconciliation in the world, creates faith for the purpose of enabling the originally intended participation of the covenant partner in what can be the only moral life for the creature: responsible relationship with God and one another.

In other words, this is about ethics, not salvation—which is exactly why the proposal of restitutio ad integrum as a soteriological goal is problematic. Apokatastasis, like so many of its alternatives, still suggests that reconciliation, or as we often call it, "atonement," is a process with an outcome that determines redemption. Its optimism, for Barth, is based on an idea that we will increasingly cooperate, that the election of the whole and the reconciliation of the whole will result in a whole rightly related at some future point. That there will therefore not be a final judgment, that the threat (as Barth says in IV.3.1) will finally evaporate and we will not finally die of our sickness, but be healed. That, as it is popularly put today, God and love will win in the end.

The problem with this idea, and therefore for Barth with apokatastasis, is that it relies on God finally overcoming us. We must look that reality in the face and understand it. A universal reconciliation will not be the end of the reconciling work in which God and we are presently involved. It cannot be, if we remain free as we are in the world. This is the fact with which we traditionally wrestle, and Barth isn't about to contravene it. This world of our making will not be transformed into the just creation without ending in a meaningful way, which is the judgment and condemnation it—and we as its agents—deserves. The problem with us is not tiny, a malaise that can be eased back into health. We are sick unto death. The apokatastasis pantōn can only be a posit about the resurrection, about a reality the other side of the eschaton from here. If it is real, it can only meet us from beyond any future we could possibly make.


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