‘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.

7 thoughts on “‘Will the Love of God Finally Triumph?’: A response to David Fergusson

  1. Hi Jason. Thanks for this. A very helpful summary. Could you possibly post a link to what you say you have argued before, about either limited atonement or Christological universalism.

    Thanks,
    æ

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  2. Andrew, Thanks. I’ve now embedded the link into the text.

    Michael, I could simply cite the usual list of verses that are used in defense of the doctrine (Matt 1:21, 11:25-27, 13:10-15, 44-46, 15:13, 20:28, 22:14, 24:22; Luke 8:15, 13:23, 19:42; John 5:21, 6:37, 44, 65, 8:42-47, 10:11, 14, 26-28, 11:49-53, 12:37-41, 13:1, 18, 15:16, 17:2, 6, 9, 18:9, 37; Acts 2:39, 13:48, 18:27, 19:9; Rom 9:10-26, 11:5-10; 1 Cor 1:18-31, 2:14; 2 Cor 2:14-16, 4:3; Gal 1:3; Eph 2:1-10; Col 2:13; 2 Thess 2:9-14; 2 Tim 2:20, 25; Tit 2:14; Heb 1:3, 14, 2:9, 16 et al, most of which do not even talk about atonement although have been harnessed by the tradition) but as you know, just about anything can be ‘biblically defensible’; in fact the context of many of these passages suggests just the opposite of what limited atonement implies. I do not believe that the Bible teaches the doctrine of limited atonement, but that does not mean that limited atonement (with or without a doctrine of conditional immortality) is not the most theologically-sustainable alternative to christological universalism, nor that a particular reading of election throughout both testaments does not support (even demand) such a view.

    For the record, neither do I believe that the Bible allows us to embrace universalism. I do believe, however, that the Bible faithfully and trustworthily bears witness to the one God who in his sovereignty and freedom has revealed himself in his being-in-act – that is, in Jesus Christ. This actus primus must have radical implications for all doctrine. More importantly (for this discussion), I want to affirm that we have no reason to presume that God in his total freedom and grace will act other than he has acted in Jesus Christ – full of grace and truth. Also, we have every reason in Jesus Christ to presume that God in his total freedom and grace will continue to eradicate creation of all that mocks his holy name and spurns his holy love.

    What do you think the alternatives are? I assume that you are neither a universalist nor a free-will advocate. Am I right here?

    What are you doing blogging at 5.42am anyway?

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  3. Don’t ask!

    Well, if limited atonement isn’t biblically defensible, then it isn’t theologically defensible either… It isn’t that there aren’t verses that suggest it: it is that there are several that teach directly against it.

    Christological universalism? Well, I guess so. Gotta think about it some more I guess. You should hear my Methodist colleague arguing for free-will some time.

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  4. ‘… if limited atonement isn’t biblically defensible, then it isn’t theologically defensible either’. I agree.

    A Methodist colleague arguing for free-will? Well it can’t be worse than listening to a consistent free will advocate pray.

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  5. Hi Jason,

    Thanks for a great post. Could you say what reasons Fergusson gives for saying that the Augustinian and Reformed position on the question is ‘unacceptable’?

    What do you think of his arguments here?

    His statement which you quote: ‘as deterministic and destructive of human freedom as the doctrine of double predestination in hyper-Calvinism’ doesn’t seem typical Fergusson in painting Reformed theology in such a bad light i.e. the Reformed have held double-predestination (not merely hyper-Calvinists) and held it as neither deterministic nor destructive of human freedom. It’s surprisingly loose terminology which doesn’t fill one with confidence about his understanding of that which he is rejecting.

    What do you think?

    David

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  6. David, these are precisely the kinds of questions that also caught my eye not least because, as you note, it paints Reformed theology in such a bad – and I think sloppy – light … something I was a little surprised to see from the pen of David Fergusson.

    As for what he deems ‘unacceptable’, he later unpacks what he means: The determination of one’s final destiny by a hidden and inscrutable decree of God undermines the intended comfort of the doctrine of predestination. Instead of providing pastoral assurance it leads inexorably to fear and uncertainty. Behind the grace of Christ toward sinners lurks uncertainty about the identity of those who are finally destined to be the recipients of that grace. This scheme appears also to render the love of God arbitrary, thus raising doubts about whether the essence of God can properly be described as love. It is at odds with the plain sense of Scripture that witnesses to God’s love for all people in Jesus Christ. And it raises a difficult moral question about the character of God in so limiting the scope of his grace. We might argue that, since the condemnation of all is just, the deliverance of some merely tempers that justice with mercy, and that in any case divine justice is not to be measured by human justice (a line of defense employed by both Augustine and Calvin). Yet this only compounds the problem, he suggests. He then employs an illustration from Stephen Davis: ‘Suppose I discover that my two sons are both equally guilty of some wrong – say they both trampled some of my wife’s beloved roses in the back yard. And suppose I say to one of them: “You are guilty and your punishment is that you will be confined to your room.” And suppose I say to the other one: “You are equally guilty, but as a gift of love, I’m going to let you go without punishment.” Surely it is obvious on the face of it that I have been unfair.’ (pp. 189-90)

    While I have some sympathy with Fergusson’s criticism here, it’s the rehearsal of an old argument that I think he could have done a much fairer job with. In the end, this essay fails to engage seriously enough with the Reformed position.

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