The Triumph Of Grace In The Theology Of Karl Barth

G C Berkouwer’s book on Barth is entitled, The Triumph of Grace in the Theology of Karl Barth. Barth was not happy with this title. He felt that it might create the misunderstanding that grace is to be viewed as an impersonal principle which can be isolated from the person of Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, Barth described Berkouwer’s book as ‘a great book on myself’ (Church Dogmatics, Vol IV/2, xii). Berkouwer responded to Barth’s criticism of the book’s title – ‘I had never thought for a moment that Barth’s doctrine of grace was an abstraction from which theologians were free to make their own deductions. Barth guessed that I had perhaps taken the title from Hans Urs von Balthasar’s remark that, for Barth, Christendom was a “triumphal affair”. But von Balthasar’s words had struck me as being too “triumphalistic” for Barth, especially in reference to Christendom. I had in mind what Barth himself had written, “This history is a triumph only for God’s grace and therefore for God’s sovereignty’ (CD, II/2, 194). But here, the triumph is not of Christendom, but of the acts of God in Jesus Christ within history. Clearly the “triumph of grace” (including the title of my book) can mean only the grace of Jesus Christ the Lord. Barth recognized that “one could speak of it in this way”‘ Two pages later, Berkouwer cites another passage where Barth uses this type of language – ‘”no praise can be too high for the mighty and triumphant grace of God in the fulfilment of the covenant” (CD IV/1, 69)’ (A Half Century of Theology, 67, 69).
Following Barth’s suggestion that ‘Jesus is Victor’ expresses his theological emphasis better than ‘the triumph of grace’, D G Bloesch, entitled his book on Barth, Jesus is Victor! – Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Salvation. Bloesch, nevertheless, reached similar conclusions to those of Berkouwer. Acknowledging that Barth’s idea of universal election is neither a metaphysical presupposition nor a rational conclusion but an affirmation of faith and hope, which Barth holds, is implied in the Biblical witness, Bloesch argues that Barth has failed to to hold together the objective and subjective poles of salvation and that his logic leads in the direction of universalism.
While seeking to be fair to both Barth and Berkouwer, we may ask whether Barth’s criticism of Berkouwer’s title has really done very much to lessen the force of Berkouwer’s argument – ‘the asking of the apokastasis question (universalism) … is warranted by the simple fact of taking Barth seriously’ ‘Barth’s express rejection of the doctrine of the apokatastasis must be fully taken into account but it is precisely when we do so that the tensions within his teaching become the more visible’ (The Triumph of Grace in the Theology of Karl Barth, 112, 266 – brackets and emphasis mine).
It is precisely because Barth is, by his own profession, not a universalist that the discussion of his theology is so important. The answer to the question, ‘Is Karl Barth a Universalist?’, must, if we take Barth’s own words seriously, be ‘No’. This, however, raises another question, ‘Is Karl Barth’s rejection of universalism convincing?’ This is the central issue raised by Berkouwer.
Berkouwer never states that Barth is a universalist on the basis that he must be a universalist. He acknoweldges that Barth dissociates himself from universalism. He does, however, question the effectiveness of Barth’s rejection of universalism ( T of G, Chapter X, ‘The Universality of the Triumph’, 262-296).
Emphasizing the universal character of the Gospel – ‘(k)erygmatic universality’ (Divine Election, 240), Berkouwer questions whether Barth has rightly represented this kerygmatic universality.
Since Barth thinks of the election of grace in universal categories, it follows that his rejection of universalism is presented in universal categories. Since Barth thinks of ‘man’ and his relation to the divine gracious election in universal categories, he cannot without undermining the whole structure of his theology, posit a withdrawal of grace from
some men (i.e. unbelievers) only, for this would be to make man’s faith (or unbelief) decisive in a way that Barth has consistently refused to do (Berkouwer describes Barth’s view, ‘The divine decision … can … not be undone by any human decision’, T of G, 113).
If the freedom of God of God is to be used as a basis for rejecting universalism, it must, in Barth’s view, be a freedom to withhold grace not only from some men but from all men. While Barth states that both the idea of universal reconciliation and the idea of the damnation of all men are ‘formal conclusions without substantial content’ (Die Kirchliche Dogmatik, Vol II/2, 461), it must be pointed out that even the suggestion of the possibility of the damnation of all men has drastic consequences for the faithfulness of God. A rejection of universalism on this basis does not represent a defence of free grace, but the introduction of a rather formless freedom which relativizes the divine faithfulness.
Although Barth was emphatic in his rejection of universalism, he did acknowledge that theological consistency might have led him to adopt a universalist position: ‘Even though theological consistency might seem to lead our thoughs and utterances in this direction (universal reconciliation), we must not abrogate to ourselves that which can be given and received only as a free gift’ (CD, Vol IV/3, first half, 477, emphasis mine).
Barth holds that God, in His freedom, leaves open the possibility of salvation for all men. He also suggests that, because of the freedom of the divine love, even the believing man can never escape the threat of eternal rejection (CD, Vol IV/3, first half, 477). Thus, Barth’s rejection of universalism is rooted in the idea that the future of all men is uncertain, This notion involves a conception of God’s freedom which might be characterized as a freedom to be ungracious.
Barth’s entire theology appears to proclaim the grace of God. This conception of God’s freedom seems to suggest, however, that the affirmation of grace requires to be qualified by the possibility that God might not be gracious.
Barth’s intention is to stress that grace is a free gift which no man has any right to expect from God. When, however, the universal threat of eternal rejection is set over against the divine reconciliation in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the issue is not one of man’s rights but of the faithfulness of the divine promise of grace to be received through faith in Christ.
Barth speaks of ‘the eternal destruction’ of those who do not believe that they are God’s children from eternity (CD Vol I/2, 238). We may ask, ‘On what basis are those who are God’s children from eternity to be committed to eternal destruction?’ Is it on the basis of a lack of a ‘(s)ubjective revelation’ which, in Barth’s view, is ‘not the addition of a second revelation to objective revelation’ (238). Is it on the basis of the raising and answering of the question of our destiny at a different point from the Son of God’s assumption of humanity (238). Barth answers both questions in the negative. He holds that ‘the truth’ (238 – i.e. the objective truth) is that he is a child of God from eternity (’”In Christ” … reconciled … elect … called … justified … sanctified’ (240)) even when he is ‘not in the truth’ (238 – i.e. subjectively).
Berkouwer draws attention to Barth’s ’strong opposition to theological arbitrariness’ (A Half Century of Theology, 46). Concerned to highlight ‘the free and gracious gift of God’ (49 – emphasis original), Barth insists that ‘(t)here is no way of leading from us to grace … (since) (t)hat … would be the worst kind of Pharisaism’ (49 – with reference to, though not a direct citation of, CD Vol IV/1, 617- emphasis and brackets mine).
It is against the arbitrariness of ‘all false boasting’ (48) that Barth emphasizes the freedom of God’s grace. His intention, in CD Vol IV/3, first half, 477, may be to warn against false boasting. His manner of speaking does, however, raise the question whether he has opened the door to a conception of theological arbitrarines, which takes us beyond a protest against false boasting.
Barth writes, ‘We should be denying … that evil attempt (the persistent attempt to change the truth into untruth) and our own participation in it, if in relation to ourselves or others or all men, we were to permit ourselves to postulate a withdrawl of that threat … No such postulate can be made even though we appeal to the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ … we must not arrogate to ourselves that which can be given and received only as a free gift’ (CD Vol IV/3, first half, 477). Here, he appears to set ‘God in Himself’ over aginst ‘God for us’. The suggestion that God might yet withdraw His saving grace from those who believe not only rules out the possibility of the assurance of salvation, it also casts aspersions of doubt on the reliability of the divine promise of grace which is received through faith in Christ.
Christian assurance is not a form of presumption which takes God’s grace for granted. Rather, it is an assurance which is rooted in the reliability of God in His gracious self-revelation in Christ. If this revelation of grace is to be qualified by a concept of divine freedom which can be isolated from God’s self-revlation in history, it can only be done at the expense of introducing both an element of arbitrariness into the doctrine of God and a basic uncertainty into the believer’s knowledge of God.
In Barth’s conception of divine freedom, there appears to be no essential connection between the historical revelation in which God promises salvation to those who believe and the eschatological possibility that this salvation might yet be withheld from those who believe. The suggestion that believing man stands under the threat of eternal rejection tends to relativize the reality of God’s gracious revelation. The faithfulness of the God of revelation is called in question. It becomes difficult to distinguish between divine freedom and arbitrariness.
There is, in Berkouwer’s analysis of Barth’s theology, an appreciation of its key themes. There is, however, criticism of the way in which Barth has interpreted these themes.
Berkouwer commends Barth for his concentration on Jesus Christ. This is what gives Barth’s theology its ‘triumphant and joyful character’ (T of G, 212). While he does not suggest that human sin should be taken more seriously than divine grace, Berkouwer does insist that we need to take great care if we are to understand the precise nature of the relationship between divine grace and human sin.
He insists that ‘there can never be a question of too strongly accenting the grace of God’. He emphasizes that ‘the question is, how shall we lay the proper emphases and how can we most purely praise this grace. It is never the full accent but the wrong accent that obscures the gospel of God’s grace’ (T of G 349 – emphasis original).
Berkouwer rejects both ‘an accentuation of the grace of God in such a manner that this grace hardly seems to be other than a deterministic causal system’ and an interpretation which pleads ‘for human freedom and for the significance of human freedom only to end in synergism (a view of faith’s role in salvation which tends to draw our attention away from the grace of God)’ (T of G 349 – brackets mine). Barth also rejects such views. The difference between Barth and Berkouwer lies in the way in which they reject them.
We have noted difficulties in Barth’s approach. He acknowledged that ‘theological consistency’ might have led him in the direction of universalism (CD Vol IV/3, first half, 477). We have suggested that there may be, in Barth’s conception of divine freedom, an arbitrariness which permits God, in His eschatological judgment, to be unfaithful to the promise of grace given in His historical revelation.
In his critique of Barth’s theology, Berkouwer lays great emphasis on the importance of both grace and faith. His emphasis on faith ensures that his theology does not lean towards the kind of universalism which Barth seeks to avoid. By emphasizing that ‘faith has significance only in its orientation to its object – the grace of God’ (Faith and Justification, 29), he seeks to avoid the kind of theology which draws our attention away from the God of grace.
We may ask, whether Berkouwer – with his great emphasis on our response of faith as well as the initiative of divine grace – leads us away from the sovereignty of God over the whole of reality to a sovereignty of God within the heart of the believer. It may be argued that Berkouwer proclaims the sovereignty of God no less emphatically than Barth. He does, however, offer interpret divine sovereignty differently from Barth.
The sovereignty of God over the whole of reality may be viewed as the demonstration that salvation is salvation in God’s way – by grace through faith. When salvation in God’s way – by grace through faith – is properly understood, there is no suggestion that we are moving away from the sovereignty of God over the whole of reality to a sovereignty of God within the heart of the believer. In God’s way of salvation, we see the sovereignty of God over man. God’s way of salvation – by grace through faith – is vindicated over against man’s attempt at achieving salvation through his own works.
This view of God’s gracious sovereignty maintains that reconciliation is God’s work, accomplished in God’s way. There is no movement in the direction of universal reconciliation. There is no wrong emphasis on faith which leads us to give faith a significance that is independent of divine grace.

When the integral relation of grace and faith is upheld against every tendency to see grace and faith as competitors, theology will ‘not permit itself to use a ‘principle’ (that of the sola gratia) as a point of departure for all manner of deductions’. ‘(G)uided by the message of the Scriptures’, it will be ‘called urgently to faith and warned against unbelief’ (T of G 274 – brackets original).

Barth’s Theme – “Not I but Christ”

“Karl Barth” is not the Name.
Jesus, for salvation, came.
Barth points us to the One,
Jesus Christ, God’s only Son.

If Barth were here today,
I think he would still say,
“The only Name is Jesus.”
This is what he would say.

Karl Barth spoke of Christ’s grace.
Yes! Karl Barth knew his place.
He did not seek the glory.
He wrote to tell Christ’s story.

Look! Here comes Doctor Barth!
It doesn’t sound quite right!
If God’s Word claims our heart,
“Jesus only” is in our sight.

“Barth is small. Christ is great.”
This is what “KB” said.
We’re in an awful state,
When we say “Barth is great …”.

Karl Barth wrote many books.
What were they all about?
To Jesus Christ he looks.
Let’s get His message out.

Words of his text are few.
They are addressed to you.
“The Bible tells us so”,
And Jesus helps us grow.

Karl Barth said, “Less of me”.
More of Christ may we see.
When we read Barth’s CD,
May Christ be all we see.

Karl Barth calls us to praise.
Our songs to Christ we raise.
With the Lord we will win.
He is Victor over sin.

Dare we forget Karl Barth?
Let Jesus fill your heart,
This, he asks us to do:
Trust in Christ. He loves you.

If you and I do this,
Put Jesus first and not KB –
Barth’s point we will not miss,
Jesus’ people we will be.

As well as Berkouwer’s ‘Studies in Dogmatics’, there are two interesting books – The Triumph of Grace in the Theology of Karl Barth; A Half Century of Theology.
Reading the first title makes some inclined to connect Berkouwer with Barth. We should be careful at this point. Though he has clearly studied Barth’s works in depth, he is very far from being a ‘disciple’ of Barth.
A Half Century of Theology was written in Berkouwer’s later years. It may be felt that, in this book, he jumps about a bit. We should bear in mind the fact that this is a book of autobiographical reflections. The great value of this book is that it acquaints us with what Berkouwer was thinking towards the end of his theological pilgrimage (not the end of his life – he lived for over twenty years after writing this book, dying at the age of 93 in 1996).

I wonder if an appropriate companion to this electronic version of the “Studies in Dogmatics” might be an electronic version of his books, The Triumph of Grace in the Theology of Karl Barth, The Second Vatican Council and the New Catholicism and A Half Century of Theology.

In my own study of Berkouwer’s theology, I have found these books to be very helpful in enabling me to see the bigger picture of the man behind the “Studies in Dogmatics”.

In his post, Karl Barth’s early theology of crisis, Ben Myers quotes Berkouwer.
“[Barth’s] deepest intention was to point to the crisis for the sake of pointing to the grace of
God, to speak the No for the sake of making the divine Yes heard. In this crisis all human ways are exposed as dead-end roads in order that the one Way might be revealed. The divine Yes is the background of the radical crisis which is suspended over the whole of life.” — G. C. Berkouwer, The Triumph of Grace in the Theology of Karl Barth (London: Paternoster, 1956), p. 33.

In his post, The best books ever written on Karl Barth, Ben Myers includes  G. C. Berkouwer, The Triumph of Grace in the Theology of Karl Barth (London: Paternoster, 1956 [1954]).

“Berkouwer’s Triumph of Grace is one of the best three or four books ever written about Barth’s theology — it’s really a work of interpretive genius” (Ben Myers, commenting on his own post, “Why I am not a universalist” at his “Faith and Theology” website).

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