Monday, August 17, 2009

Eduard Schweizer on Universalism

There are passages in the New Testament describing the group of the blessed and that of the cursed ones (as in Matthew 25:34-41), and there are other passages declaring that "all men have been consigned to disobedience that he (God) may have mercy upon all" (as in Romans 11:32). We certainly need the warning of Matthew 25 that there is a dimension of eternity in which all our living on earth has to be seen. We also need, equally urgently, to be reminded of God's grace (as in Romans 11), from which nobody and nothing can separate us, which is stronger even than our disobedience. This twofold message is the word of God, as it has to live among us. But if we tried to build up a doctrine of an indispensable belief in hell or of universal salvation, we would put ourselves above God, since we would pretend to know exactly how he would have to act on the last day. How he will really act in the last judgment is beyond the threshold of human knowledge, and nobody is allowed to pass this threshold before it is revealed in the parousia of Christ.

From "Colossians 1:15-20", Review and Expositor, 87 (1990)


Monday, May 19, 2008

Quote of the Day

"In conclusion, let me ask you to hold in your mind traditional Christian visions of the future, in which many, perhaps the majority of humanity, are excluded from salvation forever. Alongside that hold the universalist vision, in which God achieves his loving purpose of redeeming the whole creation. Which vision has the strongest view of divine love? Which story has the most powerful narrative of God's victory over evil? Which picture lifts the atoning efficacy of the cross of Christ to the greatest heights? Which perspective best emphasizes the triumph of grace over sin? Which view most inspires worship and love of God bringing him honor and glory? Which has the most satisfactory understanding of divine wrath? Which narrative inspires hope in the human spirit? To my mind the answer to all these questions is clear, and that is why I am a Christian universalist."

----- The final paragraph of Gregory MacDonald's The Evangelical Universalist, pp. 176-77


Enoch and Christian Universalism

I've been repeatedly reading the Similitudes of Enoch recently (1 Enoch 37-71 – the new Vanderkam and Nickelsburg is both the most authoritative translation and, in my view, the most accessible), and it occurred to me that it is a potentially relevant text to the Christian Universalism (CU) debate. If Matthew did indeed draw from the Similitudes for the 'parable' of the sheep and goats (Mt. 25:35-46), as Jim Davila and others think, then one ought to best consult 1 Enoch to understand Matthew. And I think one would be hard pressed to maintain any version of universalism based upon 1 Enoch!

In other words, the canonical Gospel text of Matthew likely does not support the notion that Jesus held universalist convictions, and, especially if the Similitudes link is pursued, indeed held convictions opposed to CU.

To run with this line of thinking: While it can be argued that Paul's letters do not have to be interpreted in a way that is incompatible with CU, one would also be hard pressed to claim that Paul was himself a universalist, even if there are CU seeds in his letters. Add to this the general view of Christian tradition, which in the 6th century explicitly condemned (albeit an extremely dubious variety of) CU, and one has a formidable artillery lined up against universalist convictions.

Further, and for me at the moment decisively, to add the CU footnote at the end of this picture is not simply a tame option but vital for one's understanding of the whole (much like the last chapter in a book telling you what happens at the very end is crucial). And to this extent, because it is difficult to understand the CU option as merely a subtlety, I struggle to accept a version of the story's end that does not square too comfortably with a canonical portrait of Jesus' teaching, Paul, nor the tradition of the church. Of course, I hope CUs are right. Gregory MacDonald is a 'hopeful dogmatic universalist'. For now, I remain simply a hopeivist.


Sunday, July 29, 2007

Redemptive judgment in hell? Pt 3

This post needs to be read in light of the previous two in this series: part 1 and part 2. In the following I offer a quick critique of how some Universalists use/read Paul in relation to the question of redemptive judgment in hell.

The simple point to make in relation to the claims of redemptive judgment in Paul based on such texts as 1 Cor 3:11-15; 5:1-5 and 11:29-32 is that in the latter (11:29-32) Paul makes a division between a) the sort of redemptive judgment experienced by believers, and b) the condemnation experienced by nonbelievers.

'But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world' (1 Cor 11:32)

Paul, here, arguably makes a distinction between two judgments (cf. Schnabel, Der erste Brief des Paulus an die Korinther, 668-69). On the one hand the judgment of believers (paideuo,meqa) is educative and redemptive. The final part of 11:32, on the other hand, speaks of the condemnation and judgment of the world (katakriqw/menÅ), a theme Paul touches upon in 1 Cor 6:2 and well as Rom 3:6. Although there is some debate concerning the nature of the clause following the i[na the point made here is essentially untouched.

1 Cor 11:29-32 cannot, therefore, be appealed to as Pauline support of a redemptive judgment of unbelievers in hell. It will be noticed that the material in both 1 Cor 3 and 5 is evidence of redemptive judgment on believers. What is most surprising is Paul's confidence that the sinner mentioned in 1 Cor 5 will be saved on the day of the Lord (5:5). Many commentators import a 'hope' element into this verse to make it comply with their theology (Perhaps it is now more obvious why I cited 1 Cor 5:5 in critical dialogue with Chris VanLandingham's thesis, here).

Indeed, one can suspect a common thread in the undisputed Pauline corpus in terms of judgment when 1 Cor 15:23-24 is added to the mix. There Paul speaks of an eschatological order: Christ, the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. After this comes the end (15:24 – Paul here also speaks of the destruction of 'every ruler and every authority and power' – annihilation[?]). In 1 Cor 3:6 Paul speaks of believers judging the world. It would appear that Paul envisages a judgment of the world after that of believers. And this final judgment is the condemnation mentioned in 11:32. If this is correct then the inheriting of the kingdom of God is to be related to 1 Cor 15:24. To be remembered is that Paul envisages that there will be those who do not inherit the kingdom of God. This is the post redemptive judgment world condemnation exclusion from the kingdom of God (cf. 'Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived!' - 1 Cor 6:9; 'I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God' - Gal 5:21).

This division between the world, on the one hand, and believers, on the other is one Paul regularly employs, and does so with an eye on the eschaton. For example, 1 Cor 16:22 'Let anyone be accursed who has no love for the Lord. Our Lord, come!' (I prefer not to exclude an eschatological overtone in this Maranatha cry). Also noteworthy is Paul's rhetoric in 1 Thess 4. Some in the community had died and this had thrown many into confusion. Paul starts his argument with the following words:

'But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope' (1Thess 4:13).

There are those who 'have no hope'. The previous eschatological material in Paul would imply that this is more than a statement concerning the subjective state of certain individuals, and an objective matter relating to their destination (as also implied by Paul's continued talk of the hope of believers in relation to their destination). Believers, on the other hand, as Paul will continue to argue, have the hope of forever being with the Lord. The dead in Christ rise first, followed by those still left alive. It would appear that Paul's language in this passage should be taken to mean that Christ returns to skies of the earth and the believers rise up to meet the Lord. Then, the Lord returns to the earth with the believers to judge it. Then the business of judgment on those who 'have no hope' starts.

I realize that many Universalist will want to suggest a theological reading or objection at this or that point (and they may well be correct to do so. My point in these posts is to clarify the claims of some Universalists in relation to Paul and what Paul believed). Some may also want to reference passages in 1 Cor 15 and Rom 5 in support of their objection. However, if we are going to the Pauline texts attempting to use Paul in support of universalism or a more traditional or annihilationist reading then it needs to first be realizes one is then making a historical claim, an exegetical claim about how Paul is best understood. (Of course, some may claim that Rom 5:18-19 can be understood as authoritative without recourse to Paul's authorial intent. However, and first, I am reluctant to sweep the notion of authorial intent away – cf. Max Turner's article in Between Two Horizon's – and second, if one takes this route, one wonders how Paul's letters, and not just passages, are functioning as Scripture in this scenario – I will return to this point at another time) At this point I would argue that the brief outline I have sketched above concerning judgment in Paul is a plausible historical claim. For example, the Jewish groups that produced the documents found at the Dead Sea speak of the 'salvation' of the elect of the elect. Those who are safe are those 'in their group'. Those outside will suffer judgment and destruction. This is a pretty consistent picture throughout the texts. Paul fits very well against this backdrop and thus the Universalist is forced to make a reading on theological grounds that transcend and even subvert Paul's intent.

What all of this also shows us is that 2 Thess 1:8-9 is hardly the only problem text in Paul for Universalists.


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?


Monday, July 16, 2007

Guest post: Gregory MacDonald


I am pleased that you have returned to the issue of universalism and are planning to offer a critique of some of my arguments and to propose an alternative. Wonderful! You will be the first person to offer an informed critique of any of the points in the book (the previous criticisms that I have read on the web all came from people who had not read the book so they were less then informed!). I look forward to it although I see you are a master of suspence - making me wait for post 3 to find your critique! I have taken a bet with myself that I can guess what it is - but it's a good Christian bet because I won't end up in debt when I lose it!

Anyway, it is great that you are seeking to iron out the flaws in my argument and so on (this was not intended as sarcasm). Perhaps your alternative will be better than my own and that will be a great help. Andrew Lincoln was not persuaded by my approach to the hell texts - his way of handling them is different.

Or perhaps I am right (I do actually think I am right about hell even if I am not convinced I exegeted every text correctly ... Darn! I'm too honest for my own good!). I guess I ought to point out to your readers that my case for hell as a place from which one can be redeemed is not primarily based on the texts in Paul that you refer to in post 2. They are no more than suggestive. Indeed, if I restricted myself to Paul I am not sure how strong a case I could make. Nevertheless, I can see your methodological reasons for limiting the biblical data set in this way. I also appreciate the methodological reasons for focusing on historical questions before exploring the theological implications. I'll be interested to see how the discussion goes.

I ought to point out that some universalists such as J.A.T. Robinson saw the 'hell' in the hell passages as the end of any person who went there. He would not imagine that the biblical texts could allow a redemption from hell. His way of handling the tension between universal salvation and hell texts differed from my own. Someone ought to reprint his book some day. Whilst I don't agree with it all it does have some good stuff in (it was written before his 'Honest to God' phase).


Gregory MacDonald

Author of The Evangelical Universalist (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2006)

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Friday, July 13, 2007

Debate with a Universalist

Tom Talbott (universalist) vs. Eric Landstrom (evangelical)

I tend to find this 'vs.' business slightly tiresome. It makes it sound like a boxing match, and hardly facilitates a search for unity in diversity! Perhaps we should reformulate the synoptic problem as 'Mathew vs. Mark' etc. No? No, I didn't think that would go down as well. What about author of Exodus 34:7 vs. Jeremiah and Ezekiel (Jer 31:29-30; Ezek 18:2)? No? Or what about 'Paul vs. Peter – the rumble in Antioch'? Ok, I'll stop typing and go to bed.


Tuesday, July 10, 2007

God is Love

o` qeo.j avga,ph evsti,n (this is a good example of Colwell's Rule, by the way)

Interestingly, these words have proved to be a real stumbling block for many Christian theologians. Recognising certain 'dangerous' implications many have sought to 'explain away' the significance of this statement in the name of their theological systems. I urgently refer to Talbott's powerful critique of Edwards, Packer and Calvin at this point in his book The Inescapable Love of God, pp. 109-118. What many of these theologians have done with these words of scripture is quite frankly unbelievable. They claim that God is love but ... [cue to insert theological move to explain force of statement away] that it doesn't say everything about God, or that it is only true about God for Christians, that 'God is love', to cite Calvin, 'does not speak of the essence of God, but only shows what he is found to be by us [i.e. the elect]' (from his Catholic Epistles commentaries).

Of course it doesn't say everything about God! Who ever claimed it did? After all, even the author of 1 John states 'God is light'. And would we want to argue that to say God is holy or righteous is only true about God for Christians? As for Calvin, he contradicts himself hopelessly stumbling over his own reasoning in his struggle with this statement. Would he also want to say that the statement 'God is holy' is only true in terms of how God is found by us? Is God holy and righteous with us, but unholy and unrighteous with others? And of course this text is a statement about God's, for want of a better word, nature or essence. The text couldn't be any clearer.

Of course, exegetes tend not to have any problem seeing what is going on:

'John does not say that "God loves" (as in vv. 10, 11, 19), but that "God is love" … God is not only the source of love (v 7a), but love itself. Thus the assertion "God is love" means not simply that love is one of his activities, but that all his activity is loving … God's judgment (his wrath), for example, is just as much a reality as his love … But theologically these cannot be opposed to each other' (Smalley, S. S. Vol. 51: Word Biblical Commentary: 1,2,3 John, p. 239)

God not only loves but is love. So it says in 1 John 4:18 and 16, anyway, the declaration of one who claims: 'We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life' (1:1). Having heard and seen and touched this Word, 'the "we" of authoritative testimony' (see Bauckham's Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, chapter 14!) writes 'God is love'. The one addressed and captivated by God's redeeming Word to us in Christ rejoices in the truth that 'God is love' without any 'buts'.

Let's stop trying to explain 'God is love' away in the name of our theological systems, and rather let our systems sit humbly before this Word as God addresses humankind in Christ Jesus. As for theological problems ... I prefer to simply exegete and let the cards land where they want.

Now the kicker question: Is God love also for those in hell? *grins*


Thursday, July 05, 2007

The power of a question

Just a quick post. I'll respond to comments later.

"How can an all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-loving God create billions of people knowing most will be tormented in hell forever?"

From Hope Beyond Hell, by Gerry Beauchemin. This helpful pro universalist book is free online here.

Those of us, like myself, who do not consider ourselves Universalists ought not to brush such questions to one side too quickly.


Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Redemptive judgment in hell? Pt 2

To address the first bullet point (under point 4 of the first post in this series) I will now list the verses cited in Paul used to imply a restorative judgment of God in hell on those not yet 'in Christ' (all NRSV) together with comments by MacDonald and Talbott.

'For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw – the work of each builder will become visible, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each has done. If what has been built on the foundation survives, the builder will receive a reward. If the work is burned up, the builder will suffer loss; the builder will be saved, but only as through fire' (1 Cor 3:11-15)

'It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not found even among pagans; for a man is living with his father's wife ... you are to hand this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord' (1 Cor 5:1, 5)

'For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves. For this reason many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. But if we judged ourselves, we would not be judged. But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world' (1 Cor 11:29-32)

MacDonald claims:

'Divine judgments in the present are usually seen as reformative and educative (Heb 12:5-11; Tit 2:11-12; Rev 3:19; 1 Cor 11:29-32), though they are usually destructive (Acts 5:1-11). I Corinthians 5:1-5 is an interesting case study ... My suggestion is that we see the punishment of hell as fundamentally the same kind of punishment, albeit a more intense form' (136-37).

Commenting on 1 Cor 5:5, Talbott writes:

'So here, anyway, destruction is explicitly a redemptive concept'. Alluding to Paul's comments in Rom 11:32 that 'God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all', he continues, arguing that: 'we should, I believe, interpret all of the biblical ideas associated with divine judgment as redemptive ideas' (97).

In the next post I will suggest a point that speaks against the Universalist line of reasoning. This will lead into another proposal, in following post, that addresses the second of the bullet points in the previous in this series (under point 4). To make it clear, my purposes at this point are not theological but rather exegetical, with implications left to one side as best I can. I will work with the texts and the arguments of the Universalists first as a historical claim before I turn to matters theological.

OK, maybe the graphic is poor taste.


More links

Sean Winter has some good thoughts on Universalism here, and I am persecuted for my poetic sensibilities here (by Halden Doerge who called me 'Beelzebub' in the process, which isn't really very nice when you think about it). Do trot over and vote for my Barth poem; it is the best by miles.

Finally, King Congdon has written a helpful post on inerrany here.


Monday, July 02, 2007

Redemptive judgment in hell? Pt 1

Judgment on the unbeliever in hell – a brief examination of the Pauline evidence in relation to the claims of biblical Universalists

This small series will not attempt an examination of all universalism exegetical proposals – that would necessitate a book and far more time than is allotted me at the moment. Instead, I will focus upon a couple of critical points, in relation to universalism in Paul, that have suggested themselves to me as I have read through Gregory MacDonald's The Evangelical Universalist, and Thomas Talbott's The Inescapable Love of God.

A typical argument used by 'biblical universalists' (by which I mean entirely orthodox Christians who maintain their universalism together with a high view of scripture), is as follows:

  1. To use Sven Hillert's terminology, there are both 'final division' texts and 'complete and final unity' texts in Paul; both eternal separation from God texts, and universalism texts (two Reihe of texts as Balthasar claims – anybody who denies this hasn't read Paul closely enough!).
  2. A straightforward understanding of both of these groups of texts cannot be both correct at the same time.
  3. Those who don't want to conclude that the bible is muddled will then argue that the universalism texts are less ambiguous and clearer than the separation texts, and ergo the 'final division' texts must be understood differently.
  4. This final point is undergirded by two important claims:
    • God's judgment is not retributive without also being restorative (sometimes retributive may be played against restorative understandings of judgment by Universalists). To justify the restorative nature of God's judgement in Paul – with a wider view cast on the nature of hell's punishments, reference is made to 1 Cor 3:15; 5:5 and/or 11:29-32 (cf. MacDonald, 136; Talbott, 94-98)
    • There is only one major 'final division' text in Paul in comparison to the many clear universalism texts (2 Thess 1:9). So MacDonald argues: 'There is only one passage in Paul that, at first sight, really does seem to teach that the damnation of sinners is irreversible' (151)

While some of us, suspecting that we should acknowledge the distinction between the signifier and the signified of religious language and appreciate its 'eschatologically becoming' nature, may want to step out of this logical speeding car before we hit junction (c), in the following post I shall follow this argument through to the two bullet points, and briefly suggest a couple of critical remarks.


Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Debating Christian universalism

One subject I do an inordinate amount of thinking about is the question of Christian universalism, whether all will be saved. And that someone recently kindly purchased Talbott's, The Inescabable Love of God for me has just added fuel to my thoughts (it is a great read). However, recently my inner debate has swung against some important universalist exegetical arguments (based on Paul letters) and I was thinking of sharing some of my thoughts here.

So my question: Are there any universalists out there (or at least any aware of the issues involved and sympathetic towards universalism) who happen to read my blog and would fancy offering feedback if I write a few posts?

“Universalims? You’d be a fool to deny it, but an idiot to preach it” (Luther)

(My rather clever friend, David, told me this comes – or something like it – from Luther. Does anyone know that for sure?: His German original: ‘Ein Narr es zu leugnen, ein Esel es zu predigen!’)


Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Guest Post - part 2 of 2

Guest post by Gregory MacDonald, author of The Evangelical Universalist. Part 2 of 2.

“Having laid the foundations ch. 5 takes the book of Revelation as a case study. On the one hand it shows the fruitfulness of the hermeneutic explained in chs 2-4 and on the other it allows us to discuss the two most ferocious hell texts in the Bible. I argue that Revelation invites a universalist reading of those hell texts according to which those in the lake of fire can exit and enter the New Jerusalem. That sets up the discussion of hell passages across the NT in ch 6.

Having dealt with the biblical material I have a final chapter in which I consider additional arguments in favor of universalism (e.g., it helps with theodicy, it has pastoral benefits) and tackle additional arguments against it (e.g., it undermines the seriousness of sin, or evangelism). I conclude with a discussion of whether my view is heretical even if it is mistaken (which, by the way, I don't think it is).

What I hope the book will do is

- present a version of universalism that is deeply orthodox and could even have a claim to be evangelical (true to the gospel and reverent towards God's self-disclosure attested to in Scripture).
- create space for a more intelligent discussion of the issues
- perhaps even persuade some people that the grounds for hope are more solid that they may have ever dared to think.

Gregory MacDonald”

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Monday, August 14, 2006

Guest Post - part 1 of 2

Guest post by Gregory MacDonald, author of The Evangelical Universalist. Part 1 of 2.

“I originally wrote The Evangelical Universalist for myself in order to force me to think through the issues of hell and salvation for my own mental health! I was really struggling with the idea that a God who could save everyone that chose to send many people to hell forever. This idea seemed to throw serious doubt upon the love of God. So I pondered, I read and I wrote. The result was The Evangelical Universalist. It was only later that someone suggested that I send it for publication.

An evangelical defence of universalism may sound like an oxymoron and it is certainly a good way to get oneself in to the black books of certain evangelical people and groups. It seemed prudent to me to write under a pseudonym - hence Gregory (as in 'of Nyssa') and MacDonald (as in 'George'). I have reasons for not wanting my identity known (yet).

To give a basic overview of the book the argument runs as follows:

Chapter 1 is an exercise in philosophical theology with the intention is showing that there are no good defences of the traditional notion of hell and that hell thus constitutes a serious problem for Christian theology. A wide range of contemporary and ancient defences of hell are examined and found wanting. In light of this I suggest we re-examine the teaching of Scripture. The bulk of the book seeks to do that.

Chapters 2-4 provide a grand overview of what I call a universalist biblical theology. It is a constructive theological attempt to see the big picture in a way that fits well with a universalist end to the plot. Chapter 2 takes the theology of Colossians as providing a (deutero-?)Pauline theology that is overtly universalist. This provides the big picture. Chapters 3-4 fill in the details of the universalist metanarrative (ch 3 on OT and ch 4 on NT). Various key biblical texts (e.g., Rom 5, 1 Cor 15, Rom 9-11, Phil 2) are discussed at the relevant places in the metaplot. The hope was to move the discussion away from an eternal (and somewhat dull) battle of proof texts towards a vision of the trajectory of the biblical story. The individual texts are treated as part of that bigger plot”
To be continued tomorrow ...

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Saturday, August 05, 2006

Universalism - a brief note on my position

And where do I stand on the universalism issue? ‘Stand’ is probably not the best way to frame it, but here goes:

I used to think that exclusivist was the only option, and anything else, compromise. Now exclusivist makes little sense to me, not because of this or that verse of scripture alone, but because of life, the smile of a baby, the groan of an old man, the death of a precious Hindi old lady who’s served her family all her life, and other bigger issues such as what the death of Christ and his resurrection says of God’s character, why he would create only to send most to hell, why the sending of Christ would seem to damn more to hell than save for eternal life, why God is love if most experience anything but love and forgiveness, why God won’t forgive most as we are commanded to in the scriptures, why God would be so interested in the contents of our minds (our doctrinal beliefs) as central to salvation etc.

But I just can’t go universalist, and I’ve been real tempted in the past, primarily because I cannot exegetically justify it. I don’t feel the scriptures enable me to make that jump. Sure, some passages in Paul sound universalist (like Rom 5, parts of 1 Cor 15 and Col 1, Eph 1), but I don’t think Paul himself was a universalist.* I think the most that could be said is that there are seeds of universalist thinking in Paul. A friend of mine in Tübingen is writing a postdoctoral work on this theme, and he is sure, certain, that Paul was a universalist, and I sure hope he is correct, but I doubt it as I think the argumentative structure of Paul’s letters would work very differently were he actually universalist (and cf. also e.g. Gal 5:21, and the recent, and excellent, Gericht und Gemeinde by NT scholar Konradt – mentioned before on this blog, here). But it is the word ‘hope’ from the last sentence I want to pick up on. Universalism is problematic, I think, because it draws into realms of dogmatic assertion, what is arguably at the most a present hope. Who knows what will one day happen? Perhaps I would call myself a ‘hopeivist’, but not a universalist. But, again, I hope I can be persuaded otherwise. For those who don’t live in tight Christian subcultures, the question of the fate of our non-Christian loved ones is extremely important. But I cannot simply brush Scriptures that I feel speak against universalism under the carpet.

*Gregory made some very helpful suggestions in response to this point in one of our e-mail correspondences.


Friday, August 04, 2006

The Evangelical Universalist

Not so long ago, on my friend Jason Clark’s blog, I came across a book recommendation on universalism. Some of you know that Christian universalism is a question that has engaged me on and off, but I was all the more fascinated to read that the author is writing from an evangelical perspective and as a universalist. As an evangelical myself who has spent a considerable amount of time pondering this issue, I wanted to know more.

The book in question: The Evangelical Universalist, written by Gregory MacDonald (a pseudonym).

Not only that, I was amazed to read recommendations for this book written by excellent scholars such as Andrew T. Lincoln and Joel B. Green. Enough to get my serious attention!

For example, Lincoln writes:
“. . . [T]his passionate and lucid advocacy of an evangelical universalism . . . not only engages with key passages in the context of the overall biblical narrative but also treats clearly the profound theological and philosophical issues to which that narrative gives rise . . . readers . . . will find this book an excellent, accessible and indispensable aid in their own attempts to grapple with what its author describes as ‘a hell of a problem’ . . .”
While Green comments:
“. . . I was struck by the persuasiveness of many of Gregory MacDonald's arguments, not least since they rest in an unusually adept interweaving of biblical exegesis with relevant philosophical and theological considerations . . .”
‘An immediate must buy’, I thought!

In the following posts (though not necessarily in this order - and my impending holiday in Portugal will slow things up):

1) I shall briefly present to you my own (developing) position on universalism. I am not dogmatic on this, and by no means at the ‘decided for good’ stage. In other words, I am truly open to dialogue. Nevertheless, for what it’s worth, I’ll share some of my thoughts as I’m not a universalist. I just don’t feel the texts of scripture allow me to take that leap. But more on that later (though I note, I have not yet had a chance to read The Evangelical Universalist to convince me otheriwse).

2) Not only that, but, after contacting the author, he has kindly written a wonderfully helpful introduction and overview of his book for you, my readers. This will tell us why he wrote the book and what he hopes to achieve with it, and so on.

3) When I receive my copy in the post I will get my head down to reading it as quickly as possible, because I also hope to publish on Chrisendom a short interview with Gregory about the book. He has already kindly written some very though-provoking words to me, in dialogue with some of my concerns.

I think this is going to be a fascinating series! I’m especially looking forward to reading his treatment of the book of Revelation, which he tells me is perhaps the most detailed attempt to read it in a universalist way.


Saturday, February 04, 2006

Christian Universalism Pt. 3

This is the final part of my Christian Universalism trilogy. Cf. parts 1 and 2.

Certainly at first sight, then, there appear to be two different possible answers to the question, ‘Will everybody finally be saved/reconciled to God?’, from within the biblical texts, and the logical categories derived from these texts.

The problem with this theme is that the questions thrown up in the Christian Universalism (CU) debate go to the very heart of Christian theology, and are bound up with a myriad of other themes like: free-will and divine-determination, the role played by reason, tradition and Scripture, etc., and this makes short posts on a blog almost unbearably superficial. This, the last post in the series, will a) look at how some Christian theologians have attempted to resolve the apparent tensions, b) make some suggestions as to what matters future debate needs ‘take on board’, and c) give a brief personal note.

A) Approaches that have been taken to resolve the apparent tension/contradiction in the texts:

  1. Stress the prima facie value of the sort of texts mentioned in the first part of this series, eternal separation and ‘hell’ texts, and seek to read the apparent universalist texts in a different way (the Traditionalist approach, e.g. by I. H. Marshall)

  2. Stress the apparent universalist texts and sort of logic mentioned in the second part of this series, and seek to reinterpret the nature of ‘eternity’ and ‘punishment’, making it something redemptive (Talbott), or as just a rhetorical threat, i.e., not something that will actually happen (J. Robinson).

  3. Others want to allow room for the ‘natural’ reading of all texts, accept them, then redefine what the Scriptures are actually doing, as opposed to providing timelessly true teaching (Brunner), and thereby transport the question to the realm of verbal ‘hope’ (Barth, von Balthasar)

B) A couple of issues that the developing discussion would do well to bear in mind:

  1. The texts usually quoted for or against CU need to be more firmly contextualised. What questions Paul was actually seeking to address in 1 Cor 15 and Rom 5 need to be brought more firmly into the heart of the debate. Sven Hillert in his, Limited and Universal Salvation, has started this process, but I suspect much more integration work with the rest of Paul’s theology needs to be done.

  2. The exegesis of the NT witness also needs to be contextualised more thoroughly in the literature of second Temple Judaism and seek to uncover how these other traditions held the matters in tension, and why they did so. E.g., even the Dead Sea Scrolls literature evidences remarkable universalist tendencies (pretty much universally underestimated by DSS scholarship!).

  3. Perhaps particularly for evangelicals to engage with is the following: the relation between the witness of Scripture as a whole, and the centrality of God’s revelation in Christ needs to be clarified. ‘In these last days’, the author of Hebrews writes, ‘God has spoken to us by the Son (not through the 1611 KJV!)’

  4. The theme of ‘new creation’ needs to be brought back in to centre stage, and replace much talk of ‘heaven’.

  5. Ones hermeneutical approach needs to engage more thoroughly both with the dynamics of scriptural narrative (and not simply limp out verses or theological platitudes), and the missional and ecclesiological consequences and goals of the debate.

  6. Like Bultmann, Wright etc., who have explicitly sought to erect an interpretive edifice around the reading of the NT texts (much like scaffolding around a building) and to test it against the texts, the CUs and their critics need to engage in such thought experiments to determine whether or not the addition of CU to Paul’s edifice helps to better explain, or not, specific contextual arguments and strategies within his letters. OK, that last sentence was a bit wordy, but, for me, important.

I could go on, but this post is already getting too long.

I’ll finish with personal note: I would dearly love CU to be correct, not just as a hope, but as a believable dogma - dearly love it to be true. Furthermore, the CU approach makes so much sense (bar the sovereign freedom of God [Barth] and seriousness of sin coupled with human free-will) of major theological themes and problems.

However, out of intellectual honesty, I cannot (yet) believe Paul was as a universalist, or, for that matter, anyone else in the bible. There are far too many places in Paul’s letters that I suspect, would have been written and approached very differently were he a CU (see point 6 above). Nevertheless, perhaps CU is the best and most consistent way to understand Paul’s theology for today, and an accurate, but nevertheless developed, representation of his eschatology and soteriology, but the evangelical in me doesn’t, yet, quite know how to handle this, and thus how to interpret matters into my own theological framework. Hence my reading and study with regards this question continues ...

My provisional position, and I stress provisional: I 200% hope CU is correct, but I am, as yet, 80% unconvinced. Admittedly, such percentage numbers hardly mean much.


Friday, February 03, 2006

Christian Universalism Pt. 2

In the previous post I very briefly mentioned a couple of verses that would, at first sight, speak clearly against any sort of Christian Universalism (CU). Here, I will, again briefly and superficially, overview a few passages used by CUs, and the sort of arguments employed.

I suspect the biblical case for universalism is stronger than most suspect. At least in my own evangelical tradition, ‘universalist’ is often seen as synonymous with ‘major league bible-burning heretic’.

So what is there in the bible to support CU?

First, I would refer my readers to my early short post on the logic developed by Talbott. This argument I would slightly expand with admittedly naïve reference to verses like:

2 Peter 3:9 ‘The Lord is … not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance’ or 1 Tim 2:4 ‘[God] desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth’. As I said, I’m not exegeting here, just gathering some raw material.

Now, if these, and other verses like them, are taken seriously, then for people to actually finally be lost and perish, would mean God’s will is not accomplished. However, is such an denial ‘biblical’? Apparently, God will do all things as he wants to: Eph 1:11 ‘In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will’.

Not only that, but there are a few verses that claim that God is not only able to do ultimately do his will, but that this will certainly happen (cf. 1 Cor 15:27-28).

Then there are the classic texts: Rom 5:18 ‘Therefore just as one man's trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man's act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all’ (one which, in context I admittedly find none too convincing), 1 Cor 15:22 ‘for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ’ (ending ‘so that God may be all in all’ v. 28), or, my favorite, Col 1:20 ‘through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross’.

Particularly notable, much like the word ‘eternal’ in the previous post, is the repetition of the word ‘all’ in these verses.

The next post will ask the most important and complex question of all: How do we deal with these two strands of biblical thought?


Christian Universalism Pt. 1

I have far too many ‘series’ on the go at the moment, so I won’t draw this one out, and I will keep it very basic. But the question of Christian Universalism or Allversöhnung has been exercising me greatly of late. And it’s an important question for me. My own particular Christian background has strongly anathematised any leaning in a universalist direction, and to flip over to ‘the dark-side’ on this one would deserve at the very least a merciful bullet in the head from an elder or two. So, my procedure was as usual: read everything you can get your hands on that is even partly related.

However, the evangelical in me will always start off with the scriptures, at least as a practical first-step. Off the top of my head, I listed a few that could both speak against and for Christian Universalism. I didn’t initially try any serious exegesis, I simply listed them next to each other, and it made a real impression on me. Here, first, are a couple of texts that would, certainly at first sight, speak against Universalism.

“… Then they also will answer, 'Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?' Then he will answer them, 'Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.' And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (Mat 25:41-46)

“… when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. These will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, separated from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might …” (2 Thess 1:7-10)

Particularly striking is the word ‘eternal’ in both of these passages. In the light of such verses, one also ought not to drive too strong a wedge, as I felt von Balthasar was in danger of doing in Was Dürfen Wir Hoffen?, between pre- and post-Easter perspectives on Universalism.

… Part II briefly looks at scriptures that would seem to affirm Christian Universalism.