Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Gregory MacDonald responds to a question

In light of something Cliff Martin wrote here, I sent the following question to Gregory MacDonald, author of the Evangelical Universalist:

I wonder what you think of the passage Mark 14:20-21 'He said to them, "It is one of the twelve, one who is dipping bread
into the bowl
with me. For the Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that one not to have been born"'.

If the Universalist case it accepted, how could it possibly be better for Judas never to have been born? Penny for your thoughts …

Here is Gregory's response for you to think about:

Here is how I would provisionally approach the text you quote - as an example of what I refer to as the rhetoric of wrath: Hyperbole for dramatic effect. Jesus was a master of it as were the prophets. Here are some examples from Jeremiah of it at work

"Moab will be destroyed a nation ... Yet I will restore the fortunes of Moab in the days to come" (48:42, 57)

"I will pursue [Elam] with the sword until I have made an end of them ... Yet I will restore the fortunes of Elam in the days to come" (49:37, 39)

I'm not suggesting that these are exact parallels or what Jesus had in mind or anything of the sort. My point is simply that biblical authors can declare judgement in ways that look final but which are not. So I guess I would take that as a line of inquiry to pursue - if I had the time (which I don't). My inclination is not to take Jesus' words as strictly literally true and that to press them that hard - as if they were statements from a professor of analytic philosophy - is to over-read them.

Of course, my critics will accuse me of under-reading Jesus and of not taking his words seriously. Well, I do take it as a very strong warning about a very real and dreadful punishment so I think that I do take it seriously. However, in the end it will depend on the wider theological frameworks within which we reappropriate Jesus' words. It is that that will incline us one way or the other. I'm a universalist so I naturally am inclined to see Jesus' words in that light. I fully understand why others would not do so.

My initial thoughts run as follows: I am quite sure that he is right about the importance of the wider theological framework. I am not sure, however, 1) if his theological framework reflects the beliefs and teaching of the authors of the NT, nor 2) if we should use a theological framework in such a harmonising way. What think you?



At 7/17/2007 11:43 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I guess an important question for all of us is "Can we admit Jesus, Paul or whoever, but Jesus especially, said or believed an idea which we theologically reject?" And what could be the authority for such an idea? Could the Spirit inspire a reading against the teaching of the incarnated Lord?

It seems Macdonald does not want to entertain such an idea(understandably), so he reads Jesus in a possibly universalistic way. Why not just grant that Jesus may not have been a universalist, but we are because of Him?

Could the historical Jesus not have been "Christocentric" enough as we often accuse other writers of being? Why not? He was human after all. And for purposes of this argument don't scapegoat the gospel writers as passing on the info poorly!


At 7/18/2007 5:24 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

TO answer the original question:

Let's say you were born into the Jewish faith. Then when you are bit older you get sidetracked with someone who makes a lot sense, but doesn't seem to track with the priests...the ones that taught you your faith as a child. So, you decide your going to stop this guy because your feeling guilty of turning from your family's faith. Then the guy gets arrested and is going to be crucified, not because of something crazy, but because he loved unconditionally, and told the truth. Then you come to your senses and realize...for the next two thousand years, people are going to fight each other because they refuse to unite under God, and they're going to have schools of thought that will fight each other and there will be more confusion than ever before. So, you decide you have to kill yourself because what you have done will cause billions to never know in their lifetime the kind of love that you have known. And to top it off when this guy said, "It would have been better for that one not to have been born." you realized...He was right.

At 7/18/2007 3:03 PM, Anonymous Shane Clifton said...

Whether or not you apply a theological framework to the exegesis of particular texts (and i fail to see how you can do otherwise), at some point in the development of your own worldview you have to do so. Ultimately, we should seek to live out of a consistent and systematic theological framework - and while wit is no doubt the case that biblical texts show evidence of alternate pespectives on various questions - we need to develop a harmonious theological view for ourselves. Having done this, we are then likely to read texts in some form of harmonising fashion (this may seem like circular logic, but i hope it makes sense - it is late and i am tired).

At 7/18/2007 7:44 PM, Blogger Stephen (aka Q) said...

Here I will show my ignorance of universalism in general, and MacDonald's position in particular.

Do universalists believe that there is no period of suffering after death?

I know, Jesus has paid the price for our sins, and the question will bring to mind the Roman Catholic teaching on purgatory. But actually, I am thinking of the annihilationist construct that individuals suffer in proportion to their sins before they are annihilated.

I assume the various texts about judgment (weeping and gnashing of teeth, etc.) must be fulfilled in some way — unless one is prepared to torpedo a fair number of Jesus' sayings. So what do universalists do with those texts?

Vis-à-vis Judas, I would say that he committed an extraordinarily grave sin. If he must suffer in proportion to that sin, it would indeed be better for him never to have been born.

By the way: I've started a new biblioblog, Emerging From Babel, in order to explore some ideas Walter Brueggemann has inspired in me.

At 7/18/2007 8:13 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


As a universalist, I believe those raised at the great white throne, will be judged and consumed by the fire of God. He is a consuming fire. The difference is that I believe those who are judged are not condemned to a "literal eternal fire damnation."

At 7/18/2007 10:17 PM, Blogger Chris Tilling said...

Thanks for your thoughts, Magog. The question you pose is an important and challenging one.

Hi Shane,
do you think we should harmonize away competing tensions in the scriptures in the name of a system, or should we allow those tensions to exist and encourage whatever it is they want to. Perhaps the more universalist texts should encourage hope while the hell fire and brimstone texts a holy fear and at least one motivation for evangelism. If we harmonise, perhaps we are in danger of loosing a scriptural trajectory which should be captured in our practices and devotion.

At 7/18/2007 11:03 PM, Anonymous Shane Clifton said...

I don't see the need to harmonize texts - indeed, one of the things that i love about Scriptures is that they do show diverse perspectives (as you would expect from a book by multiple authors written over long periods).

Having said this, i would note:
1. I would not want to overstate the differences in the Scripture (and i prefer the term diversity to contradiction - which is sometimes used by secular critics of the bible). Differences there are - but there is also a central and common theme.
2. It seems to me that too many people, in refusing to harmonise the Scriptures - then assume that they do not need to harmonise their own theological worldview. It is this capitulation to inconsistent theology that i am critiquing. Paul, for example, was a relatively consistent thinker (although, it is also true that his thinking changed and developed over time - as must ours).
3. Once you develop a consistent theology of your own (grounded, among other things, on a faithful reading of the message of the Scriptures) - then it is likely that you are going to read texts in the light of this theology - i.e. with a certain degree of harmonization.

I, for example, read ephesians 5:21-6:10 as a thoroughly egalitarian text. I believe that this is a good reading of the household code, but i am aware that i am doing a certain degree of harmonizing at this point - that my theological worldview frames my reading. I know, for example, that i am not as proficient an exegete as Peter OBrien (see his book Ephesians), but I still prefer my egalitarian reading of this text to his patriachal one.

4. Nevertheless, while harmonizing is inevitable, we should always be aware that our theology colours our reading - and challenge ourselves to transcend our biases by being open to alternate readings.

Sorry this was such a long winded response to your question.

By the way - i got my first theology and film podcast up on Pentecostal Discussions. Not sure i am happy with it - but it is a start.

At 7/19/2007 1:48 AM, Anonymous James Pate said...

I've been thinking some about what Gregory MacDonald said concerning the Jeremiah passages--the ones he cited to show that God's perpetual wrath does not always mean his perpetual wrath, since some of the nations are later restored. Coincidentally, I've been reading these chapters of Jeremiah in my daily Bible study. I still have much to learn about them, but here are some thoughts:

I think that, when God wants to later restore a nation that he promises to initially destroy, he says explicitly that he will do so. In Jeremiah 46:28, God distinguishes between Israel and other nations, saying that he will make an end of the other nations, but he will not make an end of Israel. God has a covenant with Israel that guarantees her eternal survival, regardless of her sin, whereas God destroys other nations for their iniquity. That is the general rule. When God wants to make temporary exceptions to that rule by restoring other nations, he says so. In other cases, I assume that God intends to bring an end to those nations, and that seems to be what God has done. From what I can see, the Babylonians, the Edomites, and others are gone, whereas the Jewish people still exist. Consequently, I do not think that the Jeremiah passages can be used to support universalism. Rather, Jeremiah seems to go against the idea that God pursues reconciliation with everyone, since there are nations that get destroyed. Why God restores some non-Israelite nations and not others, however, is a mystery to me.

At 7/19/2007 6:08 AM, Blogger Edward T. Babinski said...

CHRIS'S QUESTION: If Universalism is correct, how could Jesus say of his betrayer that it would be better that he were never born?

ED'S RESPONSE: The idea of eternal punishment arose during the intertestamental period. Jesus might have accepted such an idea and spoken in such a fashion either because he was a first-century Jewish apocalyptist influenced by ideas of his day and age, or because he was God "accommodating" his speech (for the sake of His first-century listeners) to popular apocalyptic notions of that day and age (one may argue either way, metaphysically speaking).

And so one could argue that whatever Jesus said concerning eternal punishment (or for that matter, whatever Jesus said concerning the reality of a literal Adam and Eve and the reality of a worldwide Flood of Noah, and the reality of the Mosaic authorship of everything in the Pentateuch and other first-century notions), such ideas need not be taken as literally as one might suppose via a cursory reading of Scripture.

The "accommodationist" hypothesis, mentioned above, was even employed by Augustine, though for a different reason.

Also, the phrase, "better not to have born," appears elsewhere in Scripture where it is used in a hyperbolic fashion. See the verses below. Should the following ancient Near Eastern rants of the prophets and Job also be taken literally?:

SPOKEN BY JEREMIAH THE PROPHET: Cursed be the day wherein I was born: let not the day wherein my mother bare me be blessed. Cursed be the man who brought tidings to my father, saying, A man child is born unto thee; making him very glad. And let that man be as the cities which the LORD overthrew, and repented not: and let him hear the cry in the morning, and the shouting at noontide; Because he slew me not from the womb; or that my mother might have been my grave, and her womb to be always great with me. Wherefore came I forth out of the womb to see labour and sorrow, that my days should be consumed with shame?
- Jeremiah 20:14-18

SPOKEN BY JOB: Or as an hidden untimely birth I had not been; as infants which never saw light. There the wicked cease from troubling; and there the weary be at rest. There the prisoners rest together; they hear not the voice of the oppressor. The small and great are there; and the servant is free from his master.
- Job 3:16-19

SPOKEN BY THE PREACHER: If a man beget an hundred children, and live many years, so that the days of his years be many, and his soul be not filled with good, and also that he have no burial; I say, that an untimely birth is better than he. For he cometh in with vanity, and departeth in darkness, and his name shall be covered with darkness. Moreover he hath not seen the sun, nor known any thing: this hath more rest than the other.
- Ecclesiastes 6:3-5

At 7/19/2007 7:58 AM, Blogger Dustin said...

Here's a question, and I think the 2nd anonymous was trying to get at this: Does the phrase 'It would have been better for that one not to have been born,' have to imply, or even necessarily imply an eternal punishment? Could it not merely mean that it truly would have been better if that person was never born--for any number of 'non-eternal' reasons? Perhaps the world would have been better place without that person. Or perhaps the person's life is (or will be) so awful that it would have been better to never have been born. Why do we automatically assume that the reason must be eternal?

To expound on what james pate said. If we continue from Jeremiah to Revelation, we see that all nations come to the New Jerusalem, they are all incorporated (eventually)into the faithful covenant community (Revelation 21). Also, part of God's covenant with Abraham is that all nations will be blessed through him (cf. Genesis 22:15-18). There are many examples within Scripture where this is the case. And I think, eschatologically speaking, it seems to be the norm.

Also, I may be wrong, but if we say that there are no Edomites or Babylonians around anymore, then I think we have to say there are no Jewish people (Israelites, is probably the proper term) anymore. Certainly the decedents of the Babylonians still inhabit parts of Iraq and Turkey. And surely there are descendants of the Edomites in parts of Jordan. So the question becomes, do we define the Edomites/Babylonians as a nation or as a people group? There is a distinction. If we define them as nations, then we cannot say that there are Israelites today. Jewish people yes, but not Israel. Anyway, just a clarification.

Ed's comments are also very noteworthy--both in terms of gaining both a cultural and linguistic perspective. I see no apparent reason why we have to 1)interpret this phrase literally and 2)why it is automatically assumed to have some notion of eternal punishment.

At 7/19/2007 9:03 AM, Blogger Dustin said...

One more comment to Chris: Just because someone is a univeralist doesn't mean that they have no reason to evangelize. One of my theology teachers told us a story about this little old lady at a church he was pastoring. She was an ardent univeralist, and yet everywhere she went she told people about the amazing thing Jesus had done. So, being the curious man my professor is, asked her, "If you think everyone is going to be saved anyway, why do you tell everyone you meet about Jesus?" Her reply, "It's such good news how could I not tell them."

At 7/20/2007 8:21 PM, Blogger Jason Pratt said...


I was listed as one of the sources in some _rather_ flattering company by Ed Babinski several weeks ago, which I accidentally ran across while doing a Google search this morning. Fwiw, I'm not a college student and haven't been for about 15 years, nor is my degree in this field. But I've been writing about this extensively for years online, in conjunction with studies in coherent trinitarian theology. My July 4th post at the Christian Cadre, The Heart of Freedom, which I recently redated in order to take advantage of a confluence of topics elsewhere on the Cadre and at Victor Reppert's DangIdea site, happens to touch on several issues that I believe lead _to_ a theology of orthodox universalism, one of those issues being positive aseity.

I tend to agree with various remarks concerning the 'better that he had never been born' remark, and tend to treat it as hyperbole myself; but I would be required to do that anyway unless I accepted a pre-existant soul theology! (I take it the grammar does mean 'better for _him_ if he had not been born', though some discussion on that might be fruitful, too.)

I would comment on other exegetical matters, but there seems to be a lot of addressment of this already in some earlier posts, and hopefully there will be more from you directly in the future (which along with 'Gregory' I look forward to.)

I do want to say something about the metaphysical priorities, though. This is a topic frequently papered over where not outright ignored, in exegetical disputes. But exegetes always operate on the acceptance and application of _some_ set of metaphysical standards. If any kind of coherent meaning is to be brought out of any text, principles superordinate to the texts have to be applied. To give the most mundane example, I have to know 'English' already to read an English translation of Mark 9:49-50 (which is a highly important universalistic verse set, commonly overlooked by proponents not to say opponents alike! {ironic g} One would think the place where Jesus explains straight out what the unquenchable fire in Gehenna is _for_ would be useful data... Talbott misses this as a reference in his _Inescapable Love_ book, which is kind of amazing considering the title! Ditto RevJohn 19:11-18 and, for that matter, Rev 21-22. Hugely important universalistic sections there, not usually tagged as such to say the least!)

Or, one might say that a prophecy has to be put together in contexts like a puzzle, where appropriate. (Again Rev chps 21-22 with pickups from the lake of fire judgment at the end of chp 20.) Where did that principle come from though? And how does one decide when it's appropriate? (None of my teachers or preachers ever decided it was appropriate for the end of RevJohn, for instance. {wry s})

If one answers, 'well it's just common sense'--even so, that's a metaphysical appeal to some overarching standard which we hope will be accepted by our opponents.

And those are fairly simple examples! To give a more particular example, related to the debate at hand: I very routinely find that most (not all) objectors to the 'kath' way (so to speak--I like to abbreviate the ways as Calv, Arm, and Kath) insist, when it comes down to it, that God is not really omnipresent. They'll either outright deny it (rare) or simply affirm it while contradicting themselves on it for purposes of this topic, sometimes in the space of the same sentence. It isn't that they are ignorant of many other ways of regarding what a 'separation from God' can mean, including in scriptural testimony; on the contrary, they frequently appeal to those ways themselves, in this and other topics. But sooner or later it becomes apparent, that _those_ ways of separation aren't enough to oppose what I am teaching: because a robust affirmation of omnipresence adds strength to the case for orthodox universalism. Consequently, they end up having to insist upon some kind of 'utter' separation which, despite their equal insistence isn't not-omnipresent, is still quite clearly equal to really really not present. {g}

Our dispute, then, over what various scriptures can mean (assuming they are testifying with adequate reliability to theological truths), depends on a metaphysical dispute over what omnipresence must or may not mean.

Similarly, since I recall seeing the 'God is love' notion mentioned: any position that involves God actively enacting hopelessness, or refusing to enact hope, for sinners, requires proposing that God permanently sets aside His love in some fashion, in much the same way that _everyone_ on all sides of the question agees that God can and does set aside His wrath permanently in some fahsion (at least in some cases). But God is not essentially wrath, so the ceasing to do wrath is not a theological problem regarding God's own self-existence. Whereas the statement 'God is love', as has long been recognized by theologians (except when it starts conflicting with the notion of hopeless damnation {wry g}), _is_ intimately connected with the whole doctrine of trinitarian theism. A Muslim or merely monotheistic Jew or nominal deist could say without contradiction that God can cease doing love or refuse to ever begin doing love to someone. So could a Mormon or an Arian or several other heretical variants.

But a trinitarian theist _as_ an orthodox trinitarian theist, cannot propose this claim without instantly abrogating and denying the truth of the substantial interPersonal unity of God.

Relatedly, it is one of the commonest things in the world, to see a Christian theologian who ought to know better, and who would indeed affirm better in another discussion--so long as that discussion wasn't about affirming the hopelessness of God--represent God's salvation as though 'God' (the Father or otherwise) wanted to do one thing with us, but 'Jesus' (the Son or otherwise) wanted to have mercy on us instead, and so somehow convinced the Father to spare us (e.g. by sacrificing Himself in our place, etc.) Whatever else that is, it isn't the substantial unity of distinct persons. It could be Arianism; it could be Mormonism; but it isn't orthodoxy.

Frequently, then (and I could multiply examples further; and I expect 'Gregory' is well-familiar with the things I am talking about, although I wish Talbott had spoken more about it in his own book), I find that a choice is being made about theological priorities in the interpretation of scripture. Wasn't trinitarian theism a scripturally derived doctrine? Well, yes, but it gets inconvenient sometimes, and so...

...and so a choice is made, to interpret some scriptures in light of others--which admittedly has to be done--based on the notion that a doctrine of God's hopeless condemnation is theologically more important for Christian identity _as_ 'a Christian', than orthodox trinitarian theism.

Be that the correct choice to make or not, that's what I find to be very typically happening.

Obviously I could go on about this at great length. {g} But I'll step back for now, and let other people have a go.

God's hope to all of you,

Jason Pratt

PS: if you run across a book being released late-summer called _Cry of Justice_--it's mine, and it isn't unrelated to the things being discussed here, but it's an epic fantasy novel, so I can't really recommend it as a source. {g} Thought I'd head off some confusion ahead of time.


Post a Comment

<< Home