A wee note on ‘hypothetical universalism’ in the Reformed tradition

John_Owen by John_Greenhill

One of the recurring themes that crops up in conversations with my students is over the various articulations of and arguments for and against soteriological universalism. And, from time to time, some of my students are even interested in knowing what the Reformed tradition (my students are, after all, trying to be Presbyterians!) has to say on the subject. And so I was delighted to find (among some less salutary material, to be sure) a helpful wee discussion on non-Amyraldian hypothetical universalism in English Reformed orthodoxy in Richard’s Muller’s essay ‘Diversity in the Reformed Tradition: A Historiographical Introduction’ wherein Muller writes:

‘Given that there was a significant hypothetical universalist trajectory in the Reformed tradition from its beginnings, it is arguably less than useful to describe its continuance as a softening of the tradition [as Jonathan Moore does]. More importantly, the presence of various forms of hypothetical universalism as well as various approaches to a more particularistic definition renders it rather problematic to describe the tradition as “on the whole” particularistic and thereby to identify hypothetical universalism as a dissident, subordinate stream of the tradition, rather than as one significant stream (or, perhaps two!) among others, having equal claim to confessional orthodoxy’.

Stretching the Zonules: 100 years ago today, and more recent exploits

‘The question of providing religious services for summer holiday-makers in the country was before the Dunedin Presbytery at its meeting yesterday in relation, particularly, to the growing popularity of Warrington and contiguous seaside resorts.

A report submitted recommended that a tent be procured at Warrington, but this proposal did not seem to find general favour although the point has not been settled, the matter having been referred to a small committee.

The Rev. J. Chisholm said it seemed to him that more attention should be given to these seaside resorts in the future.

The churches were almost empty for a few weeks in the year, and unless more attention were paid to the young people they would form habits which would doubtless be confirmed, and that would be to the injury of their church.

The Rev. R. Fairmaid brought the matter nearer home than the northern coast by referring to Broad Bay and the Peninsula.

A young man had told him that a kind of pagan life was lived thereby the young people who gathered for week ends.

This was a deplorable condition from the moral point of view, and, so far as he understood, there was no service provided by their people in these quarters.

The committee appointed could perhaps attend to this matter, too.

It was pointed out by the Rev. W. Scorgie, in concluding the discussion, that there was a Methodist Church at Broad Bay and a Presbyterian Church at Portobello’.

[First published in the Otago Daily Times on 7 September 1910. Reprinted in today's ODT]

Also, there’s some good reading around the traps at the moment:

  • William Cavanaugh on Christopher Hitchens and the myth of religious violence.
  • Matthew Bruce reviews Matthias Gockel’s Barth and Schleiermacher on the Doctrine of Election. [BTW: my own review of this book is available here].
  • Richard L. Floyd shares an appreciation of Donald Bloesch.
  • Kim Fabricius shares a wonderful Call to Worship.
  • Steve Biddulph on fatherhood.
  • Robert Fisk on ‘honour’ killings and on the pain of satisfying family ‘honour’.
  • Ben Myers shares a note on misreading.
  • Robin Parry (shamelessly) plugs a forthcoming book on universalism: “All Shall Be Well”: Explorations in Universalism and Christian Theology, from Origen to Moltmann.
  • Luther is still bugging the locals.
  • Simon Holt shares a nice prayer from Ken Thompson about pigeon holes, compartments, and other places.
  • And Ken MacLeod offers a brilliant solution for distracted writers: ‘One of the major problems for writers is that the machine we use to write is connected to the biggest engine of distraction ever invented. One can always disconnect, of course – there’s even software that locks out the internet and email for selected periods – or use a separate, isolated computer, but I think something more elegant as well as radical is needed. What I’m thinking of is some purely mechanical device, that took the basic QWERTY keyboard with Shift and Return keys and so on, but with each key attached to an arrangement of levers connected to a physical representation of the given letter or punctuation mark. These in turn would strike through some ink-delivery system – perhaps, though I’m reaching a bit here, a sort of tape of cloth mounted on reels – onto separate sheets of paper, fed through some kind of rubber roller (similar to that on a printer) one by one. The Return key would have to be replaced by a manual device, to literally ‘return’ the roller at the end of each line. Tedious, but most writers could do with more exercise anyway. Corrections and changes would be awkward, it’s true, but a glance at any word processor programme gives the answer: the completed sheets could be, physically, cut and pasted’.

BTW: I haven’t abandoned my series on the cost and grace of parish ministry. If all goes to plan, I’ll be back posting on it this week.

Gavin D’Costa on a Theology of Religions

In this video, Gavin D’Costa talks about his ‘move to the right’ from Rahner to the nouvelle théologie and Barth (‘the one key influence in this move … who [got] to the truth more than most Catholic thinkers’), about inclusivism, exclusivism and pluralism (which is ‘a type of exclusivism’), about soteriological universalism, and about post-mortem conversion.

Some more weekly wanderings

And here he is with Jan Garbarek & Manu Katche:

‘The Gospel of the Judgement and New Creation of All Things’, by Jürgen Moltmann

jurgen-moltmann

The Gospel of the Judgement and New Creation of All Things

By Jürgen Moltmann

What is the Goal of Christ’s Judgement?

The goal of helping victims and rectifying culprits is the triumph of God’s creative justice over everything godless in heaven, earth and below the earth, not the great reckoning with wages and punishments. This victory of divine justice leads to God’s great day of reconciliation on this earth, not to division of humankind into blessed and damned and the end of the world. On Judgement Day, “all tears will be wiped away from their eyes,” the tears of suffering and the tears of repentance. “There will be no mourning, crying or pain” (Rev 21,4). Thus the Last Judgement is penultimate, not ultimate and is not the end of God’s works. It is only a first step in a transition or transformation from transitoriness to intransitoriness. The new eternal creation created on the foundation of justice is definitive. Because the judgement serves this new creation of all things, its justice is a healing, creative justice re-establishing life according to this future, not a retaliatory justice referring to the past. The judgement serves the new creation, not sin and death as the great reckoning. It was the error of the Christian tradition in picture and idea, piety and teaching to see only judgement on the past and not God’s new world beyond the judgement and thus not believing the new beginning in the end.

The practice and endurance of evil are not always apportioned to different persons and groups of persons. Victims can also be perpetrators. In many persons, the perpetrator side and the victim side of evil are inseparably connected. The knowledge that the coming judge will judge us as perpetrators and as victims, reject the Pharisee in us and accept the sinner in us and reconcile us with ourselves. Judging victims and perpetrators is always a social judging. We do not stand isolated and dependent on ourselves before the judge as in human criminal courts or in nightly pangs of conscience. The perpetrators stand together with their victims, Cain with Abel, the powerful with the powerless, the murderers with the murdered. Humanity’s story of woe is inseparably joined with the collective history of culpability.

There are always unsolved and unsolvable social, political and personal conflicts where some become perpetrators and others victims of sin. As in the Auschwitz trials and the South African truth commission, victims have a long tormented memory while perpetrators have only a short memory if they have a memory at all. Therefore the perpetrators depend on the memories of their victims, must hear their reports and learn to see themselves with the eyes of their victims, even if this is frightening and destructive.

Dialectical Universalism

In conclusion, what practice follows from this future expectation? How do we visualize Christ’s coming justice?

An American friend asked his Baptist grandmother about the end of the world and she replied with the mysterious spine-chilling name “Armageddon.” According to Revelation 16,16, this is God’s end-time battle with the devil. Today the struggle of good against evil is generalized with the final victory of the good at the end. From this idea of the end, American fundamentalism developed a fantastic modern end-time struggle scenario. George W. Bush Jr. invented such a scenario, justifying “friend-enemy thinking” as a basic political category. To this end, he conjured the “axis of evil” reaching from Iraq to Iran and North Korea. “America is at war,” he announced after “September 11” and “whoever is not for us is against us.” America remains “at war” since no state had attacked the US but the criminal Islamic unit Al-Qaeda. In what war? The apocalyptic war called Armageddon has already started!

The judgement expectation common to Christianity and Islam has a very similar effect on the present. If the end of the world is God’s judgement over believers and unbelievers with the twofold end: believers in heaven and unbelievers in hell, the present will inevitably be ruled by religious friend-enemy thinking: here the believers in “God’s house” and there the unbelievers in the “house of war.” Since there is no hope for unbelievers, they can be punished here with contempt or terror. Unbelievers are enemies of believers since they are God’s enemies. Anticipation of the Last Judgement by separating people into believers and unbelievers and possibly persecuting unbelievers as God’s enemies is wrong because it is godless. God is not the enemy of unbelievers or the executioner of the godless. “For God has consigned all men to disobedience, that he may have mercy upon all” (Rom 11,32). Thus all people of whatever faith or unbelief must be seen as befriended by God’s mercy. God loves them whoever they are. Christ died for them and God’s spirit works in their lives. Thus we cannot be against them.

The all-embracing hope in God’s future explains this boundlessness of love. Why should we take seriously the faith, superstition or unbelief of others as God’s mercy? That was a theme for Christendom in the atheistic East Germany (DDR) state. This cannot be otherwise in our dealings with people of other religions that must be marked by God’s unconditional love. The difference between believers, persons of other faiths and unbelievers are real but are annulled in God’s mercy with everyone.

Christian universalism does not hinder but promotes taking sides for victims of injustice and violence. In a divided and hostile world, the universalism of God’s mercy with everyone is reflected in the well-known “preferential option for the poor.” God acts unilaterally in history in favour of victims and also saves perpetrators through them. Jesus calls the burdened and heavy-laden to himself, accepts sinners and sends the Pharisees away empty. For Paul, the community itself is a testimony for God’s unilateral action in favour of all people. “Consider your call, brethren: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth, but God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise. God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong. God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.” (1 Cor 1,26-29). Therefore we sing “Sun of Righteousness, Arise in our Time.”

Ecumenical Church Hymn

Sun of righteousness,
arise in our time.
Dawn in your church
so the world can see.
Have mercy, O Lord.

Wake up, dead Christendom
from the sleep of security
so it hears your voice.
Have mercy, O Lord.

Behold the divisions
that no one can resist.
Great Shepherd, gather
everything that has lost its way or gone astray.
Have mercy, O Lord.

Open the gates to the nations.
Let no cunning or power
hamper your heavenly race.
Create light in the dark night!
Have mercy, O Lord.

Let us see your glory
in this time
And seek what creates peace
with our little strength.
Have mercy, O Lord.

Let us be one, Jesus Christ,
as you are one with the Father,
remaining in you always,
today and in eternity.
Have mercy, O Lord.

Power, praise, honour and glory
Are yours Most High always
As Most High is three in one,
Let us be one in him.
Have mercy, O Lord

[Source: Christ im dialog; HT: Marc Batko, via Jürgen Moltmann group]

Marilyn McCord Adams on the relevance of feelings

The relevance of feelings. [Defenders of hell often] do not enter at any length into how bad horrendous sufferings are…. [They] imply that those who are offended [by the doctrine of eternal torment] will be motivated by understandable feelings, which are nevertheless not relevant to a rational consideration of the subject.

I want to close with a contrary methodological contention…: namely, that feelings are highly relevant to the problem of evil and to the problem of hell, because they are one source of information about how bad something is for a person. To be sure they are not an infallible source. Certainly they are not always an articulate source. But they are a source. Where questions of value are concerned, reason is not an infallible source either. That is why so-called value calculations in abstraction from feelings can strike us as “cold” or “callous”. I do not believe we have any infallible faculties at all. But our best shot at valuations will some from the collaboration of feelings and reason, the latter articulating the former, the former giving data to the latter.

Personally, I am appalled at [the] valuations of defenders of eternal torment, at levels too deep for words (although I have already said many). I invite anyone who agrees with [them] – that the saved can in good conscience let their happiness be unaffected by the plight of the damned because the destruction of the latter is self-willed – to spend a week visiting patients who are dying of emphysema or of the advanced effects of alcoholism, to listen with sympathetic presence, to enter into their point of view on their lives, to face their pain and despair. Then ask whether one could in good conscience dismiss their suffering with, “Oh well, they brought it in themselves!”

I do not think this is sentimental. Other than experiencing such suffering in our own person, such sympathetic entering into the position of another is the best way we have to tell what it would be like to be that person and suffer as they do, the best data we can get on how bad it would be to suffer that way. Nor is my thesis especially new. It is but an extension of the old Augustinian-Platonist point, that where values are concerned, what and how well you see depends not simply on how well you think, but on what and how well you love (a point to which Swinburne seems otherwise sympathetic). I borrow a point from Charles Hartshorne when I suggest that sensitivity, sympathetic interaction, is an aspect of such loving, one that rightfully affects our judgment in ways we should not ignore’. – Marilyn McCord Adams, ‘The Problem of Hell: A Problem of Evil for Christians’, in Reasoned Faith: Essays in Philosophical Theology in Honor of Norman Kretzmann (ed. Eleonore Stump; Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993), 326.

A note: I’ve come across too few who have made the invaluable point that McCord Adams makes here (whether or not one agrees with her conclusions on universalism is another matter). Of course, the implications of her words reach well beyond conversations concerning apokatastasis – they reach to how we think about all of life. BTW: She really needs to update her homepage.

Samuel Cox on Christ following our path to the end

As well as reading ‘The Gospel of Nicodemus’ (see my previous post), most of today has been spent reading a book that’s been sitting on my ‘to-read’ list for months now: Samuel Cox’s, Salvator Mundi: or, Is Christ the Saviour of all Men?. Cox served as president of the Baptist Association in 1873 and received a DD from St Andrews in 1882. All I can say is that it’s been worth the wait, and I’m glad it didn’t get erased off the list. Here’s one of my favourite passages, not least because of its enormous existential charge:

‘If Christ took flesh and dwelt among us that He might become at all points like as we are and threw open the kingdom of heaven to all believers; if He trod, step by step, the path we have to travel from the cradle to the grave, must He not also, for us men and our salvation, have passed on into that dim unknown region on which our spirits enter when we die? Did He leave, did He forsake our path at the very moment when it sinks into a darkness we cannot penetrate, just when, to us at least, it seems to grow most lonely, most critical, most perilous? And if He followed our path to the end, and passed into that awful and mysterious world into which we also must soon pass, could his Presence be hid? Must not truth and mercy, righteousness and love attend Him wherever He goes? Would not the eternal Gospel in his heart find fit and effectual utterance, and the very darkness of Hades be illuminated and dispersed as it was traversed by the Light of Life? Surely our own reason confirms the revelations of Scripture, and constrains us to believe that, in all worlds and in all ages, as in this, Christ will prove Himself to be the great Lord and Lover of men, and will claim all souls for his own’. – Samuel Cox, Salvator Mundi: or, Is Christ the Saviour of all Men? (London: C. Kegan Paul and Co., 1878), 196-7.

On fearlessly entering the borders of hell

‘When Hell and death and their wicked ministers saw that, they were stricken with fear, they and their cruel officers, at the sight of the brightness of so great light in their own realm, seeing Christ of a sudden in their abode, and they cried out, saying: We are overcome by thee. Who art thou that art sent by the Lord for our confusion? Who art thou that without all damage of corruption, and with the signs of thy majesty unblemished, dost in wrath condemn our power? Who art thou that art so great and so small, both humble and exalted, both soldier and commander, a marvelous warrior in the shape of a bondsman, and a King of glory dead and living, whom the cross bare slain upon it? Thou that didst lie dead in the sepulchre hast come down unto us living and at thy death all creation quaked and all the stars were shaken and thou hast become free among the dead and dost rout our legions. Who art thou that settest free the prisoners that are held bound by original sin and restorest them into their former liberty? Who art thou that sheddest thy divine and bright light upon them that were blinded with the darkness of their sins? After the same manner all the legions of devils were stricken with like fear and cried out all together in the terror of their confusion, saying: Whence art thou, Jesus, a man so mighty and bright in majesty, so excellent without spot and clean from sin? For that world of earth which hath been always subject unto us until now, and did pay tribute to our profit, hath never sent unto us a dead man like thee, nor ever dispatched such a gift unto Hell. Who then art thou that so fearlessly enterest our borders, and not only fearest not our torments, but besides essayest to bear away all men out of our bonds? Peradventure thou art that Jesus, of whom Satan our prince said that by thy death of the cross thou shouldest receive the dominion of the whole world’. – ‘The Gospel of Nicodemus, or Acts of Pilate’, in The Apocryphal New Testament (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1924), 20:1.

‘Gregory MacDonald’ enters blogdom

‘Gregory MacDonald’, the pseudonymous author of The Evangelical Universalist (which I have written a wee note about here) has started a blog with a view to fostering discussion about Christian universalism. Those who have not yet read ‘MacDonald’s’ book really ought to get their hands on it and READ it … especially if you’re planning on contributing anything meaningful to the discussion over at ‘Gregory’s’ blog, The Evangelical Universalist.

Some time ago now, Chris Tilling and Jason Clark posted some helpful discussion on the book too.

April Book Notes – 1

While there certainly remains a place for more lengthy book reviews, I thought it might be useful to just pen a few very brief book notes (and give some scores – ♦ – out of 5) on some of the more significant books I read each month. So here’s a few from April so far. As you can see, I’ve been following a definite theme.

Geiko Müller-Fahrenholz, The Kingdom and the Power: The Theology of Jürgen Moltmann (trans. John Bowden; Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000).

This is one of the most helpful introductions to Moltmann’s thought available. Appreciative, but not uncritical at key points, Müller-Fahrenholz introduces us to the big themes in Moltmann’s major works. Recommended. ♦♦♦

Nigel M. de S. Cameron, ed., Universalism and the Doctrine of Hell: Papers Presented at the Fourth Edinburgh Conference on Christian Dogmatics, 1991 (Carlisle/Grand Rapids: Paternoster/Baker, 1993).

Like most collections of essays, this one is a bit hit and miss. The better essays are those by Trevor Hart, David Powys, TF Torrance and Henri Blocher. ♦♦½

Thomas Talbott, The Inescapable Love of God (Boca Raton: Universal, 1999).

See my review here. ♦♦♦

Robin A. Parry and Christopher H. Partridge, ed., Universal Salvation? The Current Debate (Carlisle: Paternoster, 2003).

This is a well chosen collection of essays and authors on a timely and important topic for evangelicals. It seeks to engage with Talbott’s thesis of dogmatic universalism which Talbott outlines in the first 3 chapters. His chapter on ‘Christ Victorious’ expands on what I believe is an underplayed theme in his The Inescapable Love of God, and so I was encouraged to see it included here. Biblical, philosophical, theological and historical responses are then offered. Talbott responds briefly in the final chapter. The best responses are those offered by Eric Reitan, David Hilborn and Don Horrocks. Overall, it’s a helpful discussion. It needs an index, but the book is worth buying for the bibliography alone. It’s 18 pages! ♦♦♦

Gregory MacDonald, The Evangelical Universalist (Eugene: Cascade Books, 2006).

This is the most well argued exegetical treatment on the subject of universalism currently available. It’s well written, and the combination of ‘MacDonald’s’ cogency of argument, respect for the Biblical texts, and personal humility as to his claims makes his advocacy of evangelical universalism most attractive. Those who disagree with his position will find here a case worthy of as humble response. Good bibliography, but no index. ♦♦♦♦

Rowan Williams, Tokens of Trust: An Introduction to Christian Belief (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2007).

A beautifully-written reflection – it’s almost a poem – that deserves the widest readership. ♦♦♦♦

Hans Urs von Balthasar, Dare We Hope “That All Men Be Saved”? With a Short Discourse on Hell (Fort Collins: Ignatius Press, 1988).

While this wee book is not particularly well written (it may be better in the German), it’s almost impossible to put down, and it really does have not a few flashes of magnificent insight. Von Balthasar’s overall thesis regarding a hopeful universalism is attractive, even if not at every point convincing. His aggregating of quotes reminded me of Bloesch’s work (which I love). A good read. ♦♦♦½

Lindsey Hall, Swinburne’s Hell and Hick’s Universalism: Are we free to reject God? (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2003).

This is a helpfully lucid outline and critical response to important themes in the theology of Richard Swinburne and John Hick. While her own position is considerably more Hickian than perhaps most evangelical universalists will be comfortable with, Hall is to be commended for avoiding stereotypes and for offering a cogent contribution to an increasingly voluminous discussion on the question of Christian universalism. ♦♦♦

Richard Bauckham and Trevor Hart, Hope Against Hope: Christian Eschatology at the Turn of the Millennium (Grand Rapids/Cambridge: Eerdmans, 1999).

Richard Bauckham and Trevor Hart pair up again for this project that arose out of number of conferences and the result is a stunning collection of six essays on Christian hope – its context, its value, its basis, its power, its praxis, and its goal. Bauckham and Hart set out not merely to expose modernity’s myth of inevitable progress and postmodernity’s Nietzschian anti-metanarrative and deconstruction of mimetic imagination, but do so by laying before our eyes the broad and graced vision of God’s promises begun in the resurrection of Jesus Christ and fully realised in the new creation. Inspired by the work of Jürgen Moltmann (to whom the book is dedicated), this is a book that requires careful and reflective reading, stopping regularly to view the terrain, and then returning to again and again to grapple with its implications. This is one to buy, read, keep and re-read. [NB. This may be a biased note as Trevor is my doctoral supervisor]. ♦♦♦♦

The Inescapable Love of God

My reading of late has turned to questions of Christian hope. Over the weekend, I re-read Universalism and the Doctrine of Hell: Papers Presented at the Fourth Edinburgh Conference in Christian Dogmatics, 1991 (edited by Nigel M. de S. Cameron) and today I read with profit Hans Urs von Balthasar’s book Dare We Hope “That All Men Be Saved”?: With a Short Discourse on Hell. These are two very different books, but one thing that they have in common is the belief that Christian hope is christologically-determined hope. (For more on this theme see  my post, ‘Will the Love of God Finally Triumph?’)

I may post on the latter at some stage, but for now I want to draw attention to another book I read this week: Thomas Talbott’s The Inescapable Love of God (Boca Raton: Universal, 1999). [Many thanks to Universal Publishers for a review copy].

I want here to post more of a reaction than a formal review. Firstly, Talbott’s The Inescapable Love of God has much to commend it. Here’s just a few things:

  1. Talbott’s writing betrays throughout that the questions concerning the fate of unbelievers is one that believers ought to feel existentially.
  2. He seeks to take seriously the omnipotence of divine love, and to allow that love the determination to fulfil its goal.
  3. He seeks to provide a reasoned argument for universalism, and provides some good responses to critics of the doctrine.
  4. Talbott makes good use of the ‘positive’ NT texts that appear to support universalism (such as Rom 5:12-21; 11:11-35; 1 Cor 15:20-28; 2 Cor 5:17-20; Eph 1:10; Phil 2:10-11; Col 1:20 and 1 Tim 2:3-6).
  5. Talbott rejects any notion of a crisis of attributes in God, resisting those tendencies in some quarters to play God love against his justice, or his holiness against his mercy, for example.
  6. His argument is clear. Those who want to finally disagree with him will at least be clear at which points the divergence happens.

However, my initial reaction (which is not always the best barometer!; these thoughts are, therefore, offered most tentatively) to the book is that there are some significant theological weaknesses in Talbott’s universalism. These include:

  1. The doctrine of the Trinity appears to plays no significant – let alone determining – role in his theology. This is a problem for any Christian account of universalism.
  2. At times, Talbott’s argument could have been more christologically controlled than it is. It is not always clear that the Incarnation makes enough difference to the particular argument that he is making. In this respect (alone), Talbott’s argument sometimes reads more like John Hick than it does John Robinson (or the Apostle with the same name, for that matter). Consequently, hope in an apokatastasis panton rests on shakier ground (at certain points) than it might otherwise. [This is not to say that the christological basis for Talbott's universalism is absent. See, for example, his essay 'Christ Victorious', Chapter 2 in Universal Salvation?: The Current Debate.]
  3. Talbott posits that the determining attribute of God is love, but he fails to adequately define that love either in terms of the divine triune community, or in terms of the cross (1 John 4:10). In fact, the atoning work of Christ – what I would consider to be an indispensable part of any cogent defence of Christian universalism – is all but ignored throughout the book.
  4. Contrasting with # 4 above, Talbott’s treatment of the ‘negative’ NT texts is less convincing. In contrast, I found von Balthasar’s Dare We Hope to be a much more balanced treatment here.
  5. Talbott’s disdain for Reformed theology leads him to make too little of the doctrine of election, a doctrine which forms the basis of what are, in my view, the most compelling arguments for christological universalism. Moreover, it seems to me that if Christian-universalist theologians are going to ‘pull-off’ their argument, then they are going to need to posit the kind of God that Reformed theology (at its best!) magnifies.
  6. At significant points, Talbott seems prepared to undermine (sacrifice) divine freedom in an effort – strangely – to secure creaturely freedom.
  7. Talbott undermines the moral affects of the Fall. Subsequently, he has a much more optimistic view of a sinner’s ability and desire to repent and to ‘do the right thing’ unaided by the Spirit than I think the Bible suggests is possible. This leads him to posit that the main reason for human rejection of God is noetic rather than moral: ‘If only we knew how good and loving God is’, he suggests, ‘then we would have no logical reason to not repent’ [These are my words, not his]. Such a move threatens to rationalise sin.
  8. Talbott makes far too little of the ministry of the Spirit.
  9. Talbott is well aware of his opponents (both Reformed and Arminian) but seemingly too little aware of his allies (particularly Reformed ones). This means that he sometimes comes across as more negative than he needs to be. Certainly, his position is not as isolated as he seems to think.

I’m just about to begin Universal Salvation?: The Current Debate (edited by Robin Parry and Chris Partridge) which opens with 3 chapters by Talbott, before various responses are offered – biblical, philosophical, theological and historical. Talbott is given the right of reply in a concluding chapter. After reading Universal Salvation? I may, of course, develop a different perspective on Talbott’s proposal and, if I do, I will gladly recant!

I’m keen to hear from those who have read Talbott’s The Inescapable Love of God. What did you think?

You can read more about Talbott’s proposal at his website. He has also kindly made available the following three chapters of his The Inescapable Love of God.

Jacques Ellul on hell and the grace of God

‘I am taking up here a basic theme that I have dealt with elsewhere but which is so essential that I have no hesitation in repeating myself. It is the recognition that all people from the beginning of time are saved by God in Jesus Christ, that they have all been recipients of his grace no matter what they have done.

This is a scandalous proposition. It shocks our spontaneous sense of justice. The guilty ought to be punished. How can Hitler and Stalin be among the saved? The just ought to be recognized as such and the wicked condemned. But in my view this is purely human logic which simply shows that there is no understanding of salvation by grace or of the meaning of the death of Jesus Christ. The proposition also runs counter to the almost unanimous view of theology. Some early theologians proclaimed universal salvation but almost all the rest finally rejected it. Great debates have taken place about foreknowledge and predestination, but in all of them it has been taken for granted that reprobation is normal.

A third and the most serious objection to the thesis is posed by the biblical texts themselves. Many of these talk about condemnation, hell, banishment into outer darkness, and the punishment of robbers, fornicators, idolaters, etc. As we proceed we must overcome these obstacles and examine the theological reasons which lead me to believe in universal salvation, the texts that seem to be against it, and a possible solution.

But I want to stress that I am speaking about belief in universal salvation. This is for me a matter of faith. I am not making a dogma or a principle of it. I can say only what

I believe, not pretending to teach it doctrinally as the truth.

1. God Is love

My first simple thesis is that if God is God, the Almighty, the Creator of all things, the Omnipresent, then we can think of no place or being whatever outside him. If there were a place outside him, God would not be all in all, the Creator of all things. How can we think of him creating a place or being where he is not present? What, then, about hell? Either it is in God, in which case he is not universally good, or it is outside him, hell having often been defined as the place where God is not. But the latter is completely unthinkable.

One might simply say that hell is merely nothingness. The damned are those who are annihilated. But there is a difficulty here too. Nothingness does not exist in the Bible. It is a philosophical and mathematical concept. We can represent it only by a mathematical sign. God did not create ex nihilo, out of nothing. Genesis 1:2 speaks of tohu wabohu (“desert and wasteland” RSV “formless and void’) or of tehom (“the deep’). This is not nothing.

Furthermore, the closest thing to nothingness seems to be death. But the Bible speaks about enemies, that is, the great serpent, death, and the abyss, which are aggressors against God’s creation and are seeking to destroy it. These are enemies against which God protects his creation. He cannot allow that which he has created and called good to be destroyed, disorganized, swallowed up, and slain. This creation of God cannot revert to nothing. Death cannot issue in nothingness. This would be a negation of God himself, and this is why the first aspect seems to me to be decisive. Creation is under constant threat and is constantly upheld.

How could God himself surrender to nothingness and to the enemy that which he upholds in face and in spite of everything? How could he allow a power of destruction and annihilation in his creation? If he cannot withstand the force of nothingness, then we have to resort to dualism (a good God and a bad God in conflict and equal), to Zoroastrianism. Many are tempted to dualism today. But if God is unique, if he alone has life in himself, he cannot permit this threat to the object of his love.

But it is necessary that “the times be accomplished,” the times when we are driven into a corner and have to serve either the impotence of the God of love or the power of the forces of destruction and annihilation. We have to wait until humanity has completed its history and creation, and every possibility has been explored. This does not merely imply, however, that at the end of time the powers of destruction, death, the great serpent, Satan, the devil, will be annihilated, but much more. How can we talk about nothingness when we receive the revelation of this God who will be all in all? When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself also will be subjected to him who put all things under him, that God may be all in all (1 Cor. 15:28).

If God is, he is all in all. There is no more place for nothingness. The word is an empty one. For Christians it is just as empty as what it is supposed to denote. Philosophers speak in vain about something that they can only imagine or use as a building block, but which has no reality of any kind.

The second and equally essential factor is that after Jesus Christ we know that God is love. This is the central revelation. How can we conceive of him who is love ceasing to love one of his creatures? How can we think that God can cease to love the creation that he has made in his own image? This would be a contradiction in terms. God cannot cease to be love.

If we combine the two theses we see at once that nothing can exist outside God’s love, for God is all in all. It is unthinkable that there should exist a place of suffering, of torment, of the domination of evil, of beings that merely hate since their only function is to torture. It is astounding that Christian theology should not have seen at a glance how impossible this idea is. Being love, God cannot send to hell the creation which he so loved that he gave his only Son for it. He cannot reject it because it is his creation. This would be to cut off himself.

A whole theological trend advances the convenient solution that God is love but also justice. He saves the elect to manifest his love and condemns the reprobate to manifest his justice. My immediate fear is that this solution does not even correspond to our idea of justice and that we are merely satisfying our desire that people we regard as terrible should be punished in the next world. This view is part of the mistaken theology which declares that the good are unhappy on earth but will be happy in heaven, whereas the wicked are successful on earth but will be punished in the next world. Unbelievers have every reason to denounce this explanation as a subterfuge designed to make people accept what happens on earth. The kingdom of God is not compensation for this world.

Another difficulty is that we are asked to see God with two faces as though he were a kind of Janus facing two ways. Such a God could not be the God of Jesus Christ, who has only one face. Crucial texts strongly condemn two-faced people who go two different ways. These are the ones that Jesus Christ calls hypocrites. If God is doubleminded, there is duplicity in him. He is a hypocrite. We have to choose: He is either love or he is justice. He is not both. If he is the just judge, the pitiless Justiciar, he is not the God that Jesus Christ has taught us to love.

Furthermore, this conception is a pure and simple denial of Jesus Christ. For the doctrine is firm that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, died and was willing to die for human sin to redeem us all: I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself (John 12:32), satisfying divine justice. All the evil done on earth from Adam’s break with God undoubtedly has to be judged and punished. But all our teaching about Jesus is there to remind us that the wrath of God fell entirely on him, on God in the person of the Son. God directs his justice upon himself; he has taken upon himself the condemnation of our wickedness.

What would be the point, then, of a second condemnation of individuals? Was the judgment passed on Jesus insufficient? Was the price that was paid-the punishment of the Son of God-too low to meet the demands of God’s justice? This justice is satisfied in God and by God for us. From this point on, then, we know only the face of the love of God.

This love is not sentimental acquiescence. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God (Heb. 10:31). God’s love is demanding, “jealous,” total, and indivisible. Love has a stern face, not a soft one. Nevertheless, it is love. And in any case this love excludes double predestination, some to salvation and others to perdition. It is inconceivable that the God of Jesus Christ, who gives himself in his Son to save us, should have created some people ordained to evil and damnation. There is indeed a predestination, but it can be only the one predestination to salvation. In and through Jesus Christ all people are predestined to be saved. Our free choice is ruled out in this regard. We have often said that God wants free people. He undoubtedly does, except in relation to this last and definitive decision. We are not free to decide and choose to be damned. To say that God presents us with the good news of the gospel and then leaves the final issue to our free choice either to accept it and be saved or to reject it and be lost is foolish. To take this point of view is to make us arbiters of the situation. In this case it is we who finally decide our own salvation.

This view reverses a well-known thesis and would have it that God proposes and man disposes. Without question we all know of innumerable cases in which people reject revelation. Swarms are doing so today. But have they any real knowledge of revelation? If I look at countless presentations of the Word of God by the churches, I can say that the churches have presented many ideas and commandments that have nothing whatever to do with God’s revelation. Rejecting these things, human commandments, is not the same as rejecting the truth. And even if the declaration or proclamation of the gospel is faithful, it does not itself force a choice upon us.

If people are to recognize the truth, they must also have the inner witness of the Holy Spirit. These two things are indispensable, the faithful declaration of the gospel, the good news, by a human being and the inner witness in the hearer of the Holy Spirit, who conveys the assurance that it is the truth of God. The one does not suffice without the other. Thus when those who hear refuse our message, we can never say that they have chosen to disobey God.

The human and divine acts are one and the same only in the Word of Jesus. When he told his hearers not to be unbelieving but to believe, if they refused then they were rejected. In our case, however, we cannot say that there is an act of the Holy Spirit simultaneously with our proclamation. This may well be the point of the well-known text about the one sin that cannot be pardoned, the sin against the Holy Spirit (cf. Matt. 12:31-32). But we can never know whether anyone has committed it. However that may be, it is certain that being saved or lost does not depend on our own free decision.

I believe that all people are included in the grace of God. I believe that all the theologies that have made a large place for damnation and hell are unfaithful to a theology of grace. For if there is predestination to perdition, there is no salvation by grace. Salvation by grace is granted precisely to those who without grace would have been lost. Jesus did not come to seek the righteous and the saints, but sinners. He came to seek those who in strict justice ought to have been condemned.

A theology of grace implies universal salvation. What could grace mean if it were granted only to some sinners and not to others according to an arbitrary decree that is totally contrary to the nature of our God? If grace is granted according to the greater or lesser number of sins, it is no longer grace – it is just the opposite because of this accountancy. Paul is the very one who reminds us that the enormity of the sin is no obstacle to grace: Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more (Rom. 5:20).

This is the key statement. The greater the sin, the more God’s love reveals itself to be far beyond any judgment or evaluation of ours. This grace covers all things. It is thus effectively universal.

I do not think that in regard to this grace we can make the Scholastic distinctions between prevenient grace, expectant grace, conditional grace, etc. Such adjectives weaken the thrust of the free grace of the absolute sovereign, and they result only from our great difficulty in believing that God has done everything.

But this means that nothing in his creation is excluded or lost’.

Jacques Ellul, What I Believe (trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), 188-92.

First Things is out: ‘Who Can Be Saved?’

The February 2008 edition of First Things is out and includes, among other articles, a piece by Richard John Neuhaus on Saved in Hope: Benedict’s Second Encyclical and a provocative piece by Avery Cardinal Dulles in which he explores the question, Who Can Be Saved?. Dulles writes:

The New Testament is almost silent about the eternal fate of those to whom the gospel has not been preached. It seems apparent that those who became believers did not think they had been on the road to salvation before they heard the gospel.

In several important texts, Vatican II took up the question of the salvation of non-Christians. Although they were related to the Church in various ways, they were not incorporated in her. God’s universal salvific will, it taught, means that he gives non-Christians, including even atheists, sufficient help to be saved. Whoever sincerely seeks God and, with his grace, follows the dictates of conscience is on the path to salvation. The Holy Spirit, in a manner known only to God, makes it possible for each and every person to be associated with the Paschal mystery. “God, in ways known to himself, can lead those inculpably ignorant of the gospel to that faith without which it is impossible to please him.” The council did not indicate whether it is necessary for salvation to come to explicit Christian faith before death, but the texts give the impression that implicit faith may suffice.

Vatican II left open the question whether non-Christian religions contain revelation and are means that can lead their adherents to salvation. It did say, however, that other religions contain elements of truth and goodness, that they reflect rays of the truth that enlightens all men, and that they can serve as preparations for the gospel. Christian missionary activity serves to heal, ennoble, and perfect the seeds of truth and goodness that God has sown among non-Christian peoples, to the glory of God and the spiritual benefit of those evangelized.

The universal evidences of the divine, under the leading of grace, can give rise to a rudimentary faith that leans forward in hope and expectation to further manifestations of God’s merciful love and of his guidance for our lives. By welcoming the signs already given and placing their hope in God’s redeeming love, persons who have not heard the tidings of the gospel may nevertheless be on the road to salvation. If they are faithful to the grace given them, they may have good hope of receiving the truth and blessedness for which they yearn.

Who, then, can be saved? Catholics can be saved if they believe the Word of God as taught by the Church and if they obey the commandments. Other Christians can be saved if they submit their lives to Christ and join the community where they think he wills to be found. Jews can be saved if they look forward in hope to the Messiah and try to ascertain whether God’s promise has been fulfilled. Adherents of other religions can be saved if, with the help of grace, they sincerely seek God and strive to do his will. Even atheists can be saved if they worship God under some other name and place their lives at the service of truth and justice. God’s saving grace, channeled through Christ the one Mediator, leaves no one unassisted. But that same grace brings obligations to all who receive it. They must not receive the grace of God in vain. Much will be demanded of those to whom much is given.

Read Dulles’ full article here.

‘Will the Love of God Finally Triumph?': A response to David Fergusson

Professor David Fergusson is one of the ablest theologians teaching and writing in Britain today. A few weeks ago, I heard him give a delightful paper on providence, a mere entrée to a larger project that he’s currently working on. Everything I’ve read of his I’ve thoroughly enjoyed, especially his Scottish Philosophical Theology, The Cosmos and the Creator, and Christ Church and Society: Essays on John Baillie and D. Donald Baillie (which he edited). And so it was that I approached his essay ‘Will the Love of God Finally Triumph?’ with the certain sense of excitement, never dreaming that I might be disappointed with its contents. The essay, which was originally presented at the Sixth Edinburgh Dogmatics Conference, appears in a collection from that conference entitled, Nothing Greater, Nothing Better: Theological Essays on the Love of God, edited by Kevin J. Vanhoozer (pp. 186–202).

Fergusson properly begins his essay by reminding us that ‘the love of God demands an eschatology’ (p. 186) before proceeding to rehearse the three possible ways in which his title question can be answered. In the first section, he outlines the Augustinian and Reformed traditions in which the love of God triumphs only through the limiting of its scope, i.e. towards the elect. This, Fergusson suggests, is ‘unacceptable’ (p. 188).

In the next section, ‘Universalizing the Scope’, Fergusson turns to Karl Barth, and to what he considers to be an inconsistency between Barth’s doctrine of the election of humanity in Jesus Christ and his denial of an apokatastasis. After fairly outlining Barth’s position and properly emphasising the Swiss theologian’s fall-back position in the divine freedom, Fergusson elicits Berkouwer’s criticism of Barth in support:

‘In view of Barth’s emphasis on the factuality of Christ’s rejection, it is not possible to close the door to the apokatastasis doctrine by pointing to the fact that the Bible speaks of rejection as well as election and then entrust everything eschatologically to the hand of God. Did not the hand of God become visible in His works, and specifically in the one central “modus” of his work in Jesus Christ, in election as the decretum concretum, in the triumph of grace?’ (p. 192)

The third, and final, section is entitled ‘Against Universalism’. It is in this section that Fergusson outlines his own proposal for answering the question he began with. He begins this section, by asking ‘what is wrong with universalism in any case’? (p. 196). After noting the ‘burgeoning literature on this subject’ (p. 196) he proceeds to note that ‘one of the more perplexing aspects of the current controversy is the way in which critics of the universalist case concede that it would be nice if it were true’ (p. 196-7). He cites Stephen Davis and William Lane Craig as examples of those who would like to believe that ‘universalism were true, but it is not’ (p. 197). He then comments: ‘Such remarks are puzzling. Are we saying that God’s final scheme is undesirable? Are we even suggesting that our own moral preferences are somehow better than God’s. Can we claim to be evangelical if we hold that it would be good if universalism were true while also lamenting wistfully that it is not what God has on offer? There is a good dominical response to this: “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him” (Matt. 7:11)’ (p. 197). I believe that we ought to hear these questions with their full force, regardless of where we end up on this vexed question.

Fergusson proceeds to note that universalism’s attraction is its ‘ability to present a vision of cosmic fulfillment in which God executes justice, not only for human beings whose lives have been maimed by nature or society, but also for the whole creation … Universalism should not be tempered therefore until its profound attractions are understood. We might try to avoid it by proposing that the grace of God is offered to all in Christ but, for those who reject it, God’s scheme of justice demands eternal punishment or at least annihilation’ (p. 197).

Fergusson rehearses the well-worn argument that any certainty in an apokatastasis, while a theoretical possibility, is ultimately ‘as deterministic and destructive of human freedom as the doctrine of double predestination in hyper-Calvinism’ (p. 199). The theoretical possibility Fergusson entertains is entirely dependent on an advance in human free will. He employs the usual rhetoric of love needing to be a free human response, an ontological reality that makes the possibility of rejecting God a final possibility. One of the problems with this common argument is that Jesus potentially died for no-one. And so parroting Davis’ and Craig’s response to universalism, I confess that it would be nice if the free will argument was true, but it’s not. As I’ve argued elsewhere, the only two tenable (i.e. biblically and theologically defensible) positions available for this soteriological question are either (i) a robust reaffirmation of limited atonement (the negative side of which includes the possibility of annihilation), or (ii) some form of christological universalism (as opposed to the Hickian vision).

Fergusson’s final answer to the question that he started off with, that is, ‘Will the Love of God Finally Triumph?’, seems to be answered by, ‘Only with our help’! He concludes: ‘An eschatology needs to express the ways in which our lives are bound up with those of our neighbors and with creation as a whole and involve decisions and projects of eternal significance. By so doing the eschatological vision of the kingdom of God can furnish us with a sense of the permanence and grandeur of God’s love. The possibility that we may inexplicably exclude ourselves from this ultimate community is a condition of the significance , of our God-given freedom’ (p. 202).

My question is this: In the light of God’s action in Christ, is Fergusson’s vision all that we can reasonably hope for? I hope not, and Barth’s witness in 4/1 reminds me why I have good reason to hope not:

The ordaining of salvation for man and of man for salvation is the original and basic will of God, the ground and purpose of His will as Creator. It is not that He first wills and works the being of the world and man, and then ordains it to salvation But God creates, preserves and over-rules man for this prior end and with this prior purpose, that there may be a being distinct from Himself ordained for salvation, for perfect being, for participation in His own being, because as the One who loves in freedom He has determined to exercise redemptive grace – and that there may be an object of this His redemptive grace, a partner to receive it … The “God with us” has nothing to do with chance. As a redemptive happening it means the revelation and confirmation of the most primitive relationship between God and man, that which was freely determined in eternity by God Himself before there was any created being. In the very fact that man is, and that he is man, he is as such chosen by God for salvation; that eschaton is given him by God. Not because God owes it to him. Not in virtue of any quality or capacity of his own being. Completely without claim. – Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV.1 (ed. G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance; trans. G. W. Bromiley; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1961), 9–10.

Matthias Gockel on Barth and Schleiermacher on the Doctrine of Election: A Review

Here are the links to my 10-part review of Gockel’s book:

Matthias Gockel on Barth and Schleiermacher on the Doctrine of Election: A Review – Part X

In answering the question, ‘Will, then, all people be saved in the end?’, Lutheran scholar Carl Braaten has reminded us that ‘We do not already know the answer. The final answer is stored up in the mystery of God’s own future. All he has let us know in advance is that he will judge the world according to the measure of his grace and love made known in Jesus Christ, which is ultimately greater than the fierceness of his wrath or the hideousness of our sin’. So Barth noted in The Humanity of God, ‘This much is certain, that we have no theological right to set any sort of limits to the loving-kindness of God which has appeared in Jesus Christ. Our theological duty is to see and understand it as being still greater than we had seen before’.

The criticisms and their implications raised by Gockel will no doubt continue to be a point of dispute – a dialectic – among readers of Barth for the foreseeable future. Those with an interest in the debate more generally over universalism would be well served in reading Gockel’s fine book. However, it ought to be noted that those who are already convinced that Schleiermacher’s and (early) Barth’s doctrine of election remains the most tenable proposal will only find further material here to bolster their conviction. To those who remain unconvinced, Gockel offers little argument here to change their mind.

Gockel’s work fills a notable gap in Schleiermacher and Barth studies. While there is, encouragingly, something of a renaissance of interest in Schleiermacher, Gockel’s contribution to our understanding of, and appreciation for, Schleiermacher’s project in general, and his doctrine of election in particular, is thus far unsurpassed. Schleiermacher is not an easy read. Not only is his own terminology inconsistent but his grammar is largely foreign to contemporary readers. Gockel offers us some assistance here. His contribution too regarding Barth’s early thinking on election also serves as a most worthy conversation partner with other contributions in the same area.

The essay is clearly written, avoids stereotypes of Schleiermacher and Barth, and includes a useful bibliography and two indexes. While Gockel offers us a very valuable survey to the thinking of two Protestant giants on a central theme not only in their theology but in the Reformed tradition of which they were both heirs – a valuable task in itself – I would have liked to have seen more critical engagement with these two voices. It may have also been fruitful, for example, to chart how Schleiermacher’s and Barth’s doctrine of election relates to the human response to God’s free grace in baptism, for example, as Barth was already directing us to in IV/4.

These grumbles aside, in what is certainly one of the finest essays to have appeared on Barth in recent years, Gockel models for us the kind of close dogmatic scrutiny that Schleiermacher’s and Barth’s theological contribution both deserves and demands. Those with an interest in systematic theology and the history of doctrine, those with an interest in getting their head (and hearts) around Barth’s much misunderstood doctrine of election, those with an interest in exploring a way forward for overcoming old rifts between Lutherans and Calvinists, and those with an interest in more current debates over universalism, would all be well served by reading Gockel’s book.

Matthias Gockel on Barth and Schleiermacher on the Doctrine of Election: A Review – Part IX

The only two tenable (i.e. biblically and theologically defensible) positions available for the soteriological question are either (i) a robust reaffirmation of limited atonement (the negative side of which includes the possibility of annihilation), or (ii) some form of christological universalism (with various degrees of agnosticism). Barth, of course, was rightly suspicious of ‘isms’, whether universalism or any other -ism, and would not affirm a dogmatic doctrine of universal salvation, although he does join a tradition of both Eastern and Western theologians going back to Origen of Alexandria (185–232), Clement of Alexandria (d. 215), Gregory of Nyssa (335–394?), Ambrose of Milan (337?–397) and Gregory of Nazianzus (329–389) who all affirm a strong hope in universal salvation.

Barth famously concludes IV/3/1 by again urging that we have no good reason why we should be forbidden, or forbid ourselves from an ‘openness to the possibility that in the reality of God and man in Jesus Christ there is contained much more than we might expect’, including the ‘unexpected withdrawal of that final threat’.

If for a moment we accept the unfalsified truth of the reality which even now so forcefully limits the perverted human situation, does it not point plainly in the direction of the work of a truly eternal divine patience and deliverance and therefore of an apokatastasis or universal reconciliation? If we are certainly forbidden to count on this as though we had a claim to it, as though it were not supremely the work of God to which man can have no possible claim, we are surely commanded the more definitely to hope and pray for it as we may do already on this side of this final possibility, i.e., to hope and pray cautiously and yet distinctly that, in spite of everything which may seem quite conclusively to proclaim the opposite, His compassion should not fail, and that in accordance with His mercy which is ‘new every morning’ He ‘will not cast off for ever’ (La. 3:22f., 31).

The creature cannot impose anything upon God because God is sovereign and free. That is why universalism equals the elimination of God’s freedom. But if God in his sovereignty and freedom has revealed himself in his being-in-act – that is, in Jesus Christ – then ought – nay, must – this not have radical implications for all doctrinal issues, and no less this one. We have no reason to presume that God in his total freedom will act other than he has acted in Jesus Christ – full of grace and truth.

Therefore, we may reasonably hope for a full Apokatastasis. Few have expressed this hope more beautifully than the nineteenth century Congregationalist minister, James Baldwin Brown: ‘The love which won the sceptre on Calvary will wield it as a power, waxing ever, waning never, through all the ages; and that the Father will never cease from yearning over the prodigals, and Christ will never cease from seeking the lost, while one knee remains stubborn before the name of Jesus, and one heart is unmastered by His love’. Or consider these words from Thomas Erskine,

I cannot believe that any human being can be beyond the reach of God’s grace and the sanctifying power of His Spirit. And if all are within His reach, is it possible to suppose that He will allow any to remain unsanctified? Is not the love revealed in Jesus Christ a love unlimited, unbounded, which will not leave undone anything which love could desire? It was surely nothing else than the complete and universal triumph of that love which Paul was contemplating when he cried out, ‘Oh the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God!

In Jesus Christ, the Triune God has bound humanity to himself in such a way that even if we refuse him and damn ourselves to hell, God in his love will never cease hunting us down. So even if the church cannot affirm the apokatastasis panton, we can hope for it, and pray for it, and stop denying the possibility of it in the grace of God. Hans Urs von Balthasar was right when he said that there is all the difference in the world between believing in the certitude of universal salvation and hoping for it.

Matthias Gockel on Barth and Schleiermacher on the Doctrine of Election: A Review – Part VIII

It is difficult to imagine a more solid basis for an Apokatastasis panton than Barth gives us in his doctrine of election and reprobation. But does Barth’s commitment to divine freedom contradict the centre of his christological revision? Does he ultimately lead us all to a country and then not promise us that we might enter? Gockel, following Janowski, suggests he does, and that the payment for such a commitment threatens to ‘tear open again, though in a modified way, the abyss of the decretum absolutum et horribile (p. 210) – as though God’s Word towards a person might be different from that which he has spoken in Jesus Christ.

While Gockel notes Barth’s denial of an ultimate apokatastasis panton, he joins a pantheon of critiques – sympathetic and otherwise – who see an inconsistency in Barth here. Consider, for example, the critique from Bromiley. As one of the editors (with T. F. Torrance) and principal translators of Barth’s work, few are more familiar with Barth’s corpus and theology than Bromiley. Citing IV/3, § 70.2, Bromiley synopsises Barth view: ‘The lie cannot overthrow the truth, but God may finally condemn the liar to live in it’. Bromiley observes in Barth a ‘trend toward an ultimate universalism’ although acknowledges that, for Barth, ‘universalism in the sense of the salvation of all individuals is not a necessary implicate of Barth’s Christological universalism’. He suggests that Barth’s reservation here is ‘not really adequate’. Gockel identifies the same inconsistently in Barth, a holding back of the full consequences of Barth’s christology. Again, Bromiley notes, ‘God’s manifest purpose in Christ is to save, but under the sovereignty of the Spirit some might not be saved. The question is whether the Christological reference finally helps or matters very much. Is not the ultimate decision still taken apart from the revealed election – that is, not in the prior counsel of the Father but in the inscrutable operation of the Spirit? In other words, the decision regarding individuals is simply removed from the inscrutability of sovereign predetermination to the inscrutability of sovereign calling’.

Matthias Gockel on Barth and Schleiermacher on the Doctrine of Election: A Review – Part VII

Brewing away throughout Gockel’s book, not unoften rearing its head, is the question of universal election and universal salvation. Gockel contends that Barth’s christological revision leads him to abandon his 1936 objection to universalism and affirmation of an eschatological division between the elect and the reprobate. Barth now ‘joins Schleiermacher in leaving open the possibility of a “final opening up and expansion of the circle of election and calling” which may include everyone’ (p. 188). Barth’s reluctance, however, to embrace universalism leads to some pointed challenges by Gockel.

Gockel notes that both Schleiermacher and Barth share a stance coherent with supralapsarianism’s claim that the decree of predestination precedes that of creation and Fall, although they both go further in their assertion that God’s mercy is the decisive criterion not of redemption only but also of predestination. Gockel argues that despite Barth’s ‘own explicit unwillingness to go that far’, that is, to embrace a universal predestination to salvation, his affirmation of universal election ‘implies some form of universal salvation’ (p. 189).

Gockel also contends that Barth’s appeal to God’s freedom is inconsistent with Barth’s own position regarding God’s self-determination to be Immanuel in Jesus Christ. Gockel notes that Barth’s (and Schleiermacher’s) caution on the issue can be partly explained by the fact that ‘any affirmation of universalism would have meant the endorsement of an ecumenical heresy, which could have cost him dearly’ (p. 208). The question, however, remains: How can that which has already been overcome in Jesus Christ ever be undone? How can this impossible possibility remain? Gockel suggests that Schleiermacher is at least more consistent here with his emphasis on the unity of God’s will. With all of Barth’s massively powerful christological revisioning, he, according to Gockel, ‘shied away from certain far-ranging implications’ (p. 205). ‘One should ask’, Gockel suggests, ‘whether a consistent theory of an Apokatastasis, far from presenting a danger or even a threat, might not be a more satisfying option than the claim that the New Testament leaves us with a paradoxical constellation of the “universalism of the divine salvific will” versus the “particularism of judgement”’ (p. 208).

I confess that I sympathise with Barth’s reluctance to embrace with certainty an apokatastasis panton, even while I hold out, with Barth, hope in such a reconciliation. Barth was right to insist that God’s grace is characterised by God’s freedom. This means not only that we must never impose limits on the scope of grace, but also that we must never impose a universalist ‘system’ on grace either. To embrace either option would be to compromise the freedom of grace and also to presume that we can define the precise scope of God’s grace. That is why Barth’s theology of grace incorporates a dialectical protest: he protests both against a system of universalism and against a denial of universalism. The essential point, for Barth, is that God’s grace is completely free; that when God acts in grace it is none other than God himself who acts in freedom. When God comes to us in his grace, therefore, we can be certain that no third party or shadowy motive is twisting his arm. Because of this divine freedom and because of the nature of divine grace as grace, we can neither deny nor affirm, therefore, the possibility of universal salvation. I confess with Abraham, ‘Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?’ (Gen 18:25). Barth writes,

The proclamation of the Church must make allowance for this freedom of grace. Apokatastasis Panton? No, for a grace which automatically would ultimately have to embrace each and every one would certainly not be free grace. It surely would not be God’s grace. But would it be God’s free grace if we could absolutely deny that it could do that? Has Christ been sacrificed only for our sins? Has He not, according to 1 John 2:2, been sacrificed for the whole world? … [Thus] the freedom of grace is preserved on both these sides … Even in the midst of hell, grace would still be grace, and even in the midst of hell it would have to be honored and praised and therefore announced to the other inhabitants of hell. It is not free for nothing, but it is also not grace for nothing. We should certainly not know it if we were of the opinion that we could stop short of announcing it.

McCormack on Romans 5:17

Today I was greatly blessed and encouraged as I listened to Bruce McCormack’s recent lecture on Karl Barth and the Problem of Universalism given at the recent Karl Barth and American Evangelicals: Friends or Foes? conference. Here’s McCormack on Romans 5:17:

‘The contrast here in of the effect of the act of the first man and he effect of the act of the second. The second act establishes the reign of God through the destruction of the dominion of sin and death … Paul’s main point would, in fact, be wiped out if the real meaning of the passage as a whole is that sin and death ultimately prevail over most of humanity for in that case the saving deed of Christ would be much less than the condemning deed of Adam. To be sure, the saving deed of Christ must be received, according to verse 17, but how it is received and when it is received are questions left unresolved at this stage in Paul’s argument in Romans. What we must not conclude … is that the receiving spoken of in verse 17 is an act that can only take place within the limits of history. For in chapter 11 Paul is going to give us reason to think that reception … may, in some instances at the very least, take place beyond the limits of history’. – Bruce L. McCormack, ‘That He May have Mercy Upon All: Karl Barth and the Problem of Universalism’ (paper presented at the Karl Barth and American Evangelicals: Friends or Foes? Princeton Theological Seminary, 27 June 2007).