George HunsingerGeorge Hunsinger, professor of systematic theology at Princeton Theological Seminary, received his PhD in 1988 from Yale University.

The election that really counts is that we are elected or chosen in Jesus Christ, the Chosen One. 

Edited transcript

J. Michael Feazell: Our guest today is George Hunsinger, Princeton Theological Seminary’s Hazel Thompson McCord Professor of Systematic Theology. Dr. Hunsinger is an ordained Presbyterian minister and a major contributor to the new Presbyterian Catechism. He is author of several books, including Disruptive Grace: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth, How to Read Karl Barth: The Shape of His Theology, and The Eucharist and Ecumenism.

Thanks for being with us today.

George Hunsinger: I’m very glad to be here. Thank you.

JMF: You’re part of the Reformed tradition as a Presbyterian minister. Could you tell our viewers something about the Reformed tradition and the role it has played in the history of Christianity?

GH: The Reformed tradition developed in the 16th century at the same time as the Lutheran Reformation. The Reformed tradition originally was based in Switzerland and southern Germany and eventually came to be associated with the name of John Calvin, but there were many different theologians who were founders, so to speak, of the Reformed tradition, and that’s why we don’t usually hear about “Calvinistic” churches. You hear about Reformed churches or Presbyterian churches.

Then it spread to places like Holland and Hungary and then, in its English language versions, England and Scotland, and eventually to the United States. Our most prominent theologian historically is John Calvin. The Continental version of the Reformed tradition used the Heidelberg Catechism as its basis of instruction, whereas in the Anglo-American version and then coming into the United States, the catechisms and confessions came out of the Westminster Assembly that was held in the 17th century. The Westminster Catechisms were the English language catechisms, as opposed to the Heidelberg that was used on the Continent.

JMF: You’re also president of the Karl Barth Society of North America and you’re active in the T.F. Torrance Theological Fellowship. Can you give us some perspective on how Calvin, Barth, and Torrance fit into major theological themes today?

GH: Karl Barth has been described as the most important theologian since Thomas Aquinas—those were the words of Pope Pius XII. He was a larger-than-life figure who wrote a massive amount. His great work is called Church Dogmatics, but he wrote much more than that. Like Luther and Calvin, he was also a person of affairs. He played a leadership role in church and society in the course of his life. He was born in 1886 and died in 1968.

Barth is often remembered for the role he played in the confessing church, which was that element of the German Protestant Church that stood up to Hitler. Barth was the principal author of the Barmen Dec­laration, which now has a kind of confessional status in my own church, the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. We include that in our book of confessions.

Thomas Torrance was Karl Barth’s most important English-speaking student. Torrance went from Scotland to Basel to study with Karl Barth, and when Barth was about to retire, he hoped that Torrance would become his successor. But Torrance wanted to stay in Edinburgh and continue there, so that didn’t happen. There are at least three Thomas Torrances. There’s Torrance the dogmatic or systemic theologian, there’s Torrance the figure who did groundbreaking work in the dialogue of theology and science, and Torrance the historical theologian. He’s the one who’s least well known, but the one I profit the most from, I think.

Along with being a historical theologian (there’s not a single major theologian in the history of the Christian tradition about whom he hasn’t written at some length—these things are scattered in journals and anthologies and so on), Torrance was also an ecumenical scholar and devoted a great deal of his career… especially to dialogue set up between the Reformed churches and Eastern Orthodoxy. That’s also a part of the Torrance legacy that I try to follow in.

JMF: One of the books that you have written is How to Read Karl Barth: The Shape of His Theology. I wanted to talk about a few things in here. On page 106 you make this comment, “Two points above all seemed essential to Barth about salvation. First, what took place in Jesus Christ for our sal­vation avails for all. Second, no one actively participates in him, and there­fore in his righteousness, apart from faith.” Could you elaborate on that?

GH: That’s a very deep aspect of how Karl Barth understands salvation. It’s a little simple, but it makes the point…sometimes a distinction is made between the objective pole of salvation and the subjective pole. So the first part of the statement that you read has to do with the objective pole—what God has done for us in Christ apart from us before we know about it, before we receive it, before we make any response to it.

Here, Barth started with the central conviction of the Reformation based on Christ alone and the significance of Christ alone as the exclusive Savior of the human race. He started from there and tried to think it through in a way that had little precedent in the West. In some degree he ended up thinking himself into the Eastern Orthodox and Greek wing of the church. So (and Torrance has written about this) in many ways, Barth is closer to Athanasius, a great figure in the history of the [Eastern] church, than he is to Augustine, who was formative for the Latin West.

It’s not as uncommon in the Eastern Orthodox traditions to give more centrality to the idea of the universal significance of Christ’s saving work—especially in its objective pole so that…when the New Testament says all, A-L-L, which it does quite a lot, that shouldn’t be marginalized. That has an important place in our understanding of Christ and his saving significance.

But in the West, Augustine started from the bottom up and thought about whether we love God more than ourselves or ourselves more than God. The self-love and love for God were seen as competing with one another, and apart from conversion to Christ, self-love trumps everything and therefore you have the two loves, the two cities. The city of God is composed of people who order their loves properly by subjecting self-love to the control of love for God, if not eliminating self-love completely in its selfish forms. You have the city of God, and you have the earthly city. Augustine, in this bottom-up approach, thought it back into the reality of God. The two loves and the two cities had their eternal foundation in God’s eternal predestination of the human race. So this division is thought to be ultimate—it has the last word.

It’s not how Athanasius thought about these things. If you go to the great St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome, it’s a huge structure. They have markers showing where other cathedrals would fit in. You know, Cologne and so on would end here. It’s filled with magnificent art. Way toward the front, there are huge statues of four figures of importance to the whole church, and even to the Roman Catholic Church. On the one hand it’s Augustine and Ambrose. They’re all bishops – Ambrose was important in bringing Augustine to the faith, and Augustine is more the theologian and Ambrose is more the administrative Bishop of Milan.

Then they have two Greek-speaking theologians. One of them is Chrysostom, which means he was a golden-tongued orator, and the fourth statue is Athanasius. If you flee from Augustine to Athanasius, it’s not like fleeing from the clutches of the bear into the jaws of the lion—you’re going from one great world historical theologian to another.

Athanasius, and the Greeks in general back in the 3rd, 4th, 5th centuries, thought about these matters not so much in a bottom-up way as in a top-down way. Athanasius thought about election beginning with the Trinity and the Incarnation. When you do that, you don’t have to marginalize the passages that say that Christ died for all. Second Corinthians 5:14 was a seminal verse for Athanasius, and then later for Karl Barth and Tom Torrance. It says, “One has died for all. Therefore, all have died.” It goes on that “those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who for their sake died and was raised.”

That first part, that one has died for all, therefore all have died. That’s interesting because it doesn’t follow. It’s a non-sequitur. It’s not logically the case that just because one died for all, all died. That’s what the death of Christ means according to Paul in that important passage of 2 Corinthians 5. I’ve looked this up—it’s the same verb tense both times—died is aorist in the Greek, which means a completed event. I thought it would be in the perfect tense, which has some kind of ongoing consequences, but it’s the stronger sense. One died for all, therefore all died.

Even though it’s aorist both times, the death of all can’t be exactly the same as the death of the one. But somehow the all are included, not just potentially. This is how Barth read it, this is how Athanasius read it. It’s not potentially that all died, or that it’s sufficient for all but efficacious only for those who respond in faith. No. In some mysterious way, all are included in the death of Christ. That’s the objective pole of salvation.

It means that if someone comes to faith, it’s not a transition from being an outsider to being an insider. We’re all insiders, whether we know it or not. Christians are those who are brought to the point of awakening, of realizing that Christ has already accepted them, has already embraced them, that they may have been resisting their salvation. They may have been resisting their election, but their decision of coming to faith or their being awakened to faith, however that happens, doesn’t bring about the transition from being an outsider to being an insider. That has been accomplished by the grace of God apart from us.

That’s the objective pole of salvation, that has this strong universalistic element. But it’s not fulfilled. It doesn’t reach its goal until each person comes to acknowledge and recognize Jesus Christ for who he is. The way Barth thought this through…is something like that story many of us have heard about the pair of footprints on the beach: at first there are two pairs of footprints and then there was only one pair, and then there are two pair, and where there are only one pair of footprints, that was the most difficult period in my life, and where were you while I was alone? Christ was absent somehow, and the Lord says, “That’s when I was carrying you.”

The Lord is somehow, in an incognito way, carrying all of us whether we know it or not. There comes that point at the end of all things when who Christ has been for us is disclosed to each one. No one, whether before Christ or after Christ, as Barth understood it, isn’t included in the grace of God and the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to whom Christ is not present in mysterious and imperceptible ways that will only be made fully known at the end.

But on the subjective side, it’s essential that Christ be acknowledged as Lord for who he is. We have the great verse, for example, in the hymn in Philippians 2, that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow. Again, it’s an “all” passage—every knee whether in heaven or on earth or under the earth. I don’t quite know what those distinctions are about, heaven or earth and under the earth. It’s not crystal clear how to interpret that, but it’s perhaps hopefully that even under the earth, Jesus is acknowledged for who he is.

If there’s a difference between faith and sight, that final transition from faith to sight, there’s also a transition from lack of faith to sight for those who don’t come to know Christ and acknowledge him and love him and serve him in this life. At some point, everyone will see him and know him for who he is. His identity will no longer be hidden—he’ll be revealed in glory. That’s at the end. But here and now, some are called to faith and called to be Christ’s witnesses, called to be Christ’s servants, called to be the people who know and proclaim him through word and deed here and now. That’s the subjective side, and that’s what Barth is getting at in that passage.

This is not exactly what Athanasius would have said, but the longest single quotation from any theologian in the Church Dogmatics, which is a 10,000 page argument, is from Athanasius. Barth wrote large-print sections and then he wrote fine-print sections where he went into historical matters, like long footnotes or digressions, so they’re little essays on their own. In a fine-print section, when he’s talking about election and taking this Trini­tarian, Christocentric, top-down approach, he goes into a long quotation from Athanasius. It’s the longest quotation from any single author, another theologian, in Barth’s Church Dogmatics, and it’s on this point.

I think what Barth discovered there was that Athanasius anticipated what he wanted to say and Barth took himself 150 pages to do it whereas this is about 3 pages in Athanasius. Athanasius’s view is Barth’s view in a nutshell. But in the West we are conditioned to think that the Augustinian way of reading the New Testament on these matters is the only way.

There’s a rule of biblical interpretation that says that the clear passages should interpret the obscure passages, or the less-clear passages. That’s great, that’s a good rule, but it presupposes that you know what the clear passages are and what the obscure passages are. Augustine decided that Matthew 25 was the clear passage. It had the separation of the sheep and the goats. He made that the controlling idea for anything else, and that’s why the “all” passages got marginalized in Western biblical interpretation.

Whereas you might think the statement “one has died for all” is clear, but in the West, and this is true of the Reformed tradition also, Calvin and Luther included, it was thought that these “all” passages always had to be read with some kind of mental reservation because the clear passages told us that “all” was not true or it might be too good to be true.

Because of the emphasis on the universal efficacy of Christ’s saving death in the theology of Karl Barth, people have thought he’s a universalist. He’s preaching universal salvation, and if you’re a universalist, what does it matter if you come to faith—as if the only reason to come to faith is to save your own skin, there’s a kind of the self-serving reason… “you need to turn to Christ to escape some sort of terrible outcome,” which is not the best way of preaching the gospel, but it’s the Western tradition.

One of the wisest things I ever heard said about Karl Barth’s theology…and he’s known for representing what’s called dialectical theology, which means that you create tensions and you don’t resolve them. Somebody once said, “It’s amazing how many wheels within wheels Barth’s dialectical engine can keep spinning.” So you might read him up to a certain point and then stop and say okay, he’s a universalist. But no, there’s a wheel within a wheel there. The dialectical engine goes on.

Almost all mistakes in interpreting Barth’s theology, of which there are many, come down to not thinking dialectically enough with him and not seeing how he doesn’t always stop and say, okay, there’s a tension here and now I’m going to develop one side of it. No. He just develops one side of it and it might not be for several hundred pages later that you get the wheel within the wheel. It takes a long time to get the overall sweep of it.

Barth takes a position that I call reverent agnosticism. That is, he leaves the question open in hope. He doesn’t give up hope for anyone. He thinks we don’t have to give up hope for anyone. Think of all the anguish that devout Christians have gone through if a loved one or a parent or a child or someone close to them dies without coming to faith in Christ. It means the only alternative is that they are lost eternally. They’re in eternal damnation, eternally cut off from the love and joy of God.

Barth says, “We’re human beings, we’re not God. We have to leave the outcome to God.” He leaves the question open in hope. So if the option is not all are saved (the Augustinian option), or all are saved (which goes back to the theologian Origen and some others in the East, Gregory of Nyssa and so on, although it’s not the standard Eastern view. They don’t embrace universalism outright either, but it’s more prominent in some of the historical sources in the East than in the West). Barth rejects that forced alternative. He won’t say all are saved, he won’t say not all are saved. All are saved in some sense, but how that will work out he leaves open.

There’s a wonderful line at one point where he’s talking about that sort of last judgment that each of us will face. We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ. It’s like that ultimate interview situation, where you’re confronted with Christ and you find out about the footprints in the sand and so on. Barth says, “Perhaps the Holy Spirit will have a little less trouble with the others than he had with us.”

JMF: (laughing). How does Torrance build off of those concepts of Barth?

GH: Torrance seems to position himself somewhere between Calvin and Barth. He doesn’t go as far in the direction of universal hope as Barth does, but he doesn’t retreat from it either. He feels the tug of the historic Reformed tradition a little more strongly—not a lot, but a little more than Barth did. Barth is fascinated and delighted by the passages in the New Testament which use the word “all.” Barth wants to take those passages seriously.

The biblical literalists as we know them in the U.S. and in the English-speaking world, can’t take the word “all” seriously or literally because of this Augustinian… They know that that’s not true, so wherever it says all it can’t quite mean all. It has to mean all in some qualified sense. Even Aquinas takes that view. Aquinas says that the death of Christ is sufficient for all, but efficacious only for some. It has saving power only for some. That’s the standard distinction. You find that in Calvin, too. Torrance stays a little ambiguous on this point. He doesn’t reject Barth, but he doesn’t depart as much from Calvin and the Latin West as dramatically as Barth did.

JMF: Going back to the statement that Barth made… maybe the Holy Spirit won’t have as much trouble with them… Can you elaborate on that?

GH: Barth was a Reformational theologian. He saw his task as trying to go back to the Reformation and rethink it from the ground up, because there’s a sense in which the Reformation was unfinished and didn’t fully break from, according to its deepest insights, from the penitential way of thinking about salvation that was established in the medieval church. This medieval penitential view was one of the reasons the Roman Catholic tradition (and I don’t think this is a terrible thing, but everything has its downsides) always has Christ on the cross. The Reformed traditions, the Protestant traditions, have an empty cross.

The Greek church doesn’t have Christ hanging on a cross, either, but it’s a church of splendor and magnificence—usually they’ve got a gilded cross, with jewels and so on, but not Christ hanging on the cross. That man of sorrows, that sense that Christ sacrificed himself and shed his blood for us, that focus on the moment of the cross, that negative, sorrowful moment, has its place. But it tended to eclipse other aspects of the gospel that are equally, if not more, important.

Barth felt that the East was more correct by putting the accent on joy and resurrection than on the cross, keeping them in tension. No matter how seriously you take the cross, you have to take Christ’s resurrection even more seriously—something like that.

JMF: Romans 5.

GH: Exactly. Barth liked the 18th century for its optimism. Even though he thought its optimism at the surface level was off, in a hidden way, it had some insight into Christ’s resurrection whether it knew it or not. By going back to the Reformation and trying to think it through again from the bottom up, to get outside this dominance of the medieval penitential tradition and introspection, and having to do penance for your sins, and worrying that your salvation is constantly at stake because if you have a terrible misstep, if you commit a mortal sin in the penitential tradition and in Roman Catholicism to this day, you lose your salvation. So you’re the weak link in the chain. You can blow it all no matter what has gone before.

This is not Luther, this is not the Reformation. Part of what it meant for Barth to go back and try to rethink the Reformation on its own terms was to pick up on Luther’s insight that all sin is mortal sin. That’s what Christ saves us from. It doesn’t mean that some sins are not worse than others. They are. But it does mean that sin is categorical first before it’s a matter of degree. You can drown in a few inches of water, or you can drown at the bottom of the ocean, but if your head it not above the water line, you can’t breathe. Sin is like that—it’s like death. You’re either dead or you’re not dead. Or pregnancy—you’re not a little bit pregnant, you’re either pregnant or you’re not pregnant. You’re either a sinner or you’re not a sinner.

Some people like Mother Teresa may be close to the top of the water, and others, like theologians, are down near the bottom of the ocean, and there’s a whole gradation in between. But all sin is mortal sin, and therefore when Christ saves us from our sins (Luther says this explicitly in his great commentary on Galatians), it’s all our sins—past, present, and future.

So the idea that the Holy Spirit might have a little less trouble with them than he has with us, is kind of a wry way of saying we’re all sinners. It’s connected not only to sin being mortal sin, but being simul justus et peccator, Luther’s great insight that to be a Christian is simultaneously to be sinful and justified, saved, at one and the same time. That’s a dialectical or a paradoxical…I think it’s a really liberating idea.

We see the consequences of the Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox churches not having fully grasped or accepted what this is about, because they have to be too holy, they can’t allow criticism and divine judgment beyond a certain point. They have to make these sort of qualifications. Even for Protestants, you either have to sort of delude yourself that you’re not as sinful as you are, or you fall into despair and you’re so sinful that you’ve blown everything.

This is the great liberating aspect of putting the primary weight on the objective pole of salvation—that Christ’s love for us and grace toward us comes to us as lost sinners. This is Luther. Grace always comes to lost sinners and only to lost sinners. When that is known and understood, that’s the liberation of the gospel. This is true even for those who do not yet (that’s how Barth puts it), know and acknowledge Christ for who he is.

JMF: Like the woman Jesus spoke to—who loves God more? The one who is forgiven more? She knows her sinfulness, everyone sitting around the table…

GH: And is she going to have smooth sailing from then on? No lapses? No, of course not. There’s always more grace in God than there is sin in us.

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Last modified: Tuesday, March 30, 2021, 2:16 PM