Karl Barth on Grace and our Response (with Help from Ansell)

PrintA few days ago I wrote my review of Nicholas Ansell’s fantastic book on the universalism of Jürgen Moltmann, aptly entitled The Annihilation of Hell (LINK). I also wrote some reflections on how, as I learned from Ansell, Moltmann argued for a “certain” hope, over against a “wishing for the best” or even a dogmatic kind of universalism. I found this book compelling, and it goes to show just how compelling it was for me when even after finishing it I am left thinking again and again about what I learned.

I was looking through my notes on the book, and one quote stood out to me that I wanted to share here. In this, Ansell is answering how Moltmann’s kind of universalism might answer the problem of human freedom. It’s often said that universalism negates the human response, falling prey to a kind of determinism that turns free humanity into a robotic partner to God’s grace. But here Ansell points to Moltmann’s alignment with Barth’s theology of grace and response, specifically of human freedom in the response to grace, as a way forward past this difficulty. In simple terms, Barth argued that we are free because God makes us free; we are free in God’s freedom. And here Ansell expounds this quite beautifully as it relates to Moltmann’s kind of universalism. Enjoy!

(Italics are from the original, bold is mine for emphasis. Brackets “[ ]” are added for clarity.)

A great strength of Barth’s theology, I suggest, is his realisation that God’s grace lies beyond all human power and control. It is a gift that empowers. Our very existence is graced. Theology must contend with what Matthew Fox has called ‘Original Blessing.’ Barth puts it well: ‘Creation is the work of the truly free, truly undeserved grace of the one true God, both as an act and in its continuance.’

The gift precedes our ability to respond. Our capacity to respond to the gift of Life is itself a gift of Life. We don’t choose to be born. Our capacity to choose is itself born due to, thanks to, those who have helped bring us into existence. If we may speak here of the giving of others then such giving may be seen as mediating the giving of God. Gift precedes response. A response can embody/express the gift, can be gifted, can rest in something beyond, or prior to, itself. But the gift is beyond our control, grasp, understanding. It is never exhausted in our responses. Our ‘being’ precedes our ‘doing’. Our ‘being’ is not an ‘essence’ within. The gift/call of who we are is prior to, more than, what we make of ourselves. 1

In Barth’s position, God’s Yes to creation embraces a humanity that cannot naturally say Yes to God. In grace, we respond to God’s freedom and find our true freedom. 2

“Perhaps this dilemma is not insoluble [the universalist dilemma of human freedom/response]. A case for a ‘covenantal’ universalism can be made, I suggest, if we root the claim that ‘all respond to God’s grace in God’s grace’ in the conviction that we are created for Life and for God ‘from the beginning’. Responding to God’s creational grace is the warp and woof of our authentic nature. Redemption is the reaffirmation, liberation, and restoration of our true nature, rather than being a creatio ex nihilo. Our true nature is a gift/promise that responds to the gift/promise. In the context of grace, our true nature, we might say, ‘comes into its own’. This is not autonomy or heteronomy. Our response to the gift/call of Life is our response, our life. This is freedom truly defined. Freedom is not ‘doing what we want’. Freedom is not doing ‘what God wants’ instead of ‘what we want’. Freedom is faithfully keeping covenant with the God of Life in the way we choose. A universal salvation that is non-coercive must, in my view, affirm the fact that we are made for God, made for Life, to respond to Life, to initiate Life, to live (and without God there is no life) by being who we are (who we are called to be). In this sense, salvation (including universal salvation) reveals our very nature.

“Redemptive grace reaffirms and re-offers the gift of life. Graced nature ‘naturally’ responds by God’s grace to God’s grace. This is neither divine monergism nor syn-ergism (in the pejorative sense). Our working out of the gift-promise of life is covenantal. It is not a ‘work’ of the kind the reformers opposed. In covenant with God, our work is also God’s work while remaining thoroughly our own (in a non-possessive, non-autonomous sense). 3

“God is the God of creation. Creation is the creation of God. To love God is to love life. It is to find and celebrate our freedom. Only with God may we be human.” 4

There’s a degree to which I think Ansell has taken liberties in thinking beyond Barth, but there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. Although I will say that the one problem I had with the book is how Ansell often referred to Barth as a universalist. I disagree with that claim. Moltmann may be a kind of universalist, but Barth rejected this idea as something we ultimately cannot know. Though it’s a heavily debated subject among the so-called “Barthian” community, so we won’t hold it against him either.

But regardless, this is an insightful look into the nature of grace and response which Ansell seems to think Moltmann is indebted to Barth for. Do you agree with his assessment of Barth? Do you think this is a helpful understanding of human freedom and God’s grace? Leave me a comment and let me know!

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  1. P. 278
  2. P. 281
  3. P. 281
  4. P. 282

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